The Artful Book: 70 Years of The Folio Society

Frontispiece illustration (detail) by Neil Packer, for One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, published by The Folio Society, 2006. Image © Neil Packer

In celebration of beautiful books, we’re marking 70 years of The Folio Society with our latest display on the National Art Library landing. ‘The Artful Book’ was produced in association with The Folio Society, Britain’s foremost publisher of collectable illustrated books, and opened last September.  On display are illustrated books and bindings spanning the past seven decades alongside original artwork and ephemera from the publisher’s archive. There’s even a chance for you to turn the pages of some more recent Folio publications in the beautiful setting of the National Art Library.

Poster advertising The Folio Society, c. 1950. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Folio Society’s story began in 1947 when it was founded by ex-serviceman Charles Ede (1921-2002). From an early age Ede had been inspired by the Kelmscott Press, the last great venture of artist and social activist William Morris (1834-1896). Morris was frustrated by what he saw as declining standards in book design and so he founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in an effort to return to skills of hand printing and binding that were under threat from mechanisation. Kelmscott books were made from the best quality materials and required the skills of expert printers, binders and artists. They were, in Morris’s words, books with ‘a definite claim to beauty’. Charles Ede was so inspired by this that he formed his own small collection of publications from Kelmscott and other private presses such as the Golden Cockerel and the Nonesuch Press.

After returning from military service in the Second World War, Ede enrolled on a course at the London College of Printing in 1946 where he learned practical skills first-hand. Still, he was convinced that good design should be available to a much wider audience. Driven by that principle, he founded The Folio Society ‘to improve the standard of British book production and educate the public in an appreciation of fine books.’[1] Unlike the private presses, Ede employed trade printers and industrial production methods to produce beautiful books at a more affordable price to the buyer.

Tales by Tolstoy, published by The Folio Society, 1947. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tales by Tolstoy was Folio’s first book. It was published in October of their founding year and is illustrated with reproductions of nine little pen-and-ink drawings by Elizabeth MacFadyen. Wrapped in a red dust jacket, the overall design is modest compared to the more densely illustrated books of the later decades but post-war rationing was still in place in 1947 and that included rationing of print and paper. Ede’s ambitious aim of publishing a book a month could only be met by printing overseas and sourcing additional paper from generous friends. Brepols, the firm responsible for printing and binding Tolstoy’s Tales in Belgium, ‘only undertook the job as a favour’ according to Ede and the standard of printing ‘leaves a good deal to be desired.’[2]

The Folio Society went on to publish over 2000 classic works of fiction and non-fiction in the seven decades that followed. In the spirit of the early private presses, they pay close attention to each stage of production from the selection of the paper and type to the quality of the printing and the binding.

One of the most important tasks is ‘matchmaking’: finding the right illustrator for each book. The Folio Society commissions artists practising in a wide range of mediums including wood-engraving, painting, watercolour, photomontage and digital illustrations. Each book is a collaborative project between the illustrator and the publisher to visualise classic texts in an exciting and original way. Folio avoids imposing strict briefs on the commissioned illustrators. Instead, they are invited to select which scenes to represent and are often involved in designing other elements of the book. Folio covers, for example, are considered an integral part of the books’ design as are the slipcases, spines and endpapers and there are plenty of examples which show the illustrators’ direct involvement in the overall look of the book.

One is a wonderful watercolour by one of Britain’s best-known illustrators, Quentin Blake. His artwork for the 1976 edition of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark was the first of his many collaborations with The Folio Society. Not only did he provide the lively illustrations that spill across the pages, he also painted a watercolour to be printed on the cloth binding. In it, splashes of coloured ink have been dropped onto the paper to give texture to the mottled surface of an enormous cliff-face with tiny, silhouetted figures tottering along its edge, in search of the Snark.

Pen, ink and watercolour on paper by Quentin Blake, binding design for The Hunting of the Snark: an agony, in eight fits by Lewis Carroll, published by The Folio Society, 1976. Image © Quentin Blake / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As well as printing on cloth, another of Folio’s favoured methods for their binding designs is blocking. This traditional technique uses a metal die to transfer flat areas of colour or foil directly onto the cloth. It was used to create a striking cover for their 2008 edition of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. While Quentin Blake’s binding design for The Snark is instantly recognisable as his work, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the illustrations and binding for The Good Soldier were by two separate artists working in very different styles. In fact, both the impressionistic watercolour illustrations and the jagged binding design in black and gold are by Philip Bannister.

Watercolour, ‘I saw Florence running…’  for The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, The Folio Society, 2008. Image © Philip Bannister / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Cloth binding for The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, The Folio Society, 2008. Image © Philip Bannister / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The binding design might at first appear abstract, but look closer and you’ll see a series of interlocking heart shapes. These hearts refer to the literal and metaphorical ‘heart conditions’ of Ford’s characters: two couples who meet at a health spa in Germany and form a friendship. As the story unfolds, hearts are torn apart as revelations of adultery and betrayal are uncovered.

In 1914 a first incarnation of The Good Soldier – or The Saddest Story as it was then called – was published in the Vorticist magazine Blast. Reproductions of artworks by Frederick Etchells appeared alongside it and it is possible that those images were the inspiration behind Philip Bannister’s binding design in a similar style.

Most Folio books are bound in cloth but, in some cases another material has been chosen because it relates to the story in some way. Aluminium foil, for example, was used for the cover of Folio’s 1971 edition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. An image of a crawling infant by the illustrator Leonard Rosoman has been printed onto the foil cover but with the baby’s face removed.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, illustrated by Leonard Rosoman, published by The Folio Society, 1971. Image © Leonard Rosoman / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, illustrated by Leonard Rosoman, published by The Folio Society, 1971. Image © Leonard Rosoman / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The choice of metallic material and the disturbing image of a faceless child set the tone for a story that takes place over five hundred years in the future in a world where humans are artificially reproduced and their roles in society are predetermined. The shiny, silver surface also acts as a mirror, inviting us to see ourselves in the reflection.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa, illustrated by Neil Packer, published by The Folio Society, 2006. Image © Neil Packer / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa, illustrated by Neil Packer, published by The Folio Society, 2006. Image © Neil Packer / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Neil Packer is another illustrator who has designed lots of Folio bindings as well as illustrating the books. His original artworks for Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude are bright gouaches that draw inspiration from Latin American folk art and evoke the paintings of Frida Kahlo in their use of rich colours and stylised figures (by the way, a show about her is coming soon to the V&A!). His original drawing for the frontispiece is on display alongside the published book and the slipcase.

Slipcase for One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa, with design by Neil Packer. Image © Neil Packer / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Slipcases were plain when The Folio Society first used them in 1954 but in recent decades they have become an additional surface for artists to embellish. Here Packer’s design incorporates figures, animals and foliage from the fictional town of Macondo, the setting for Márquez’ landmark novel.

Packer has also provided a design for the book’s endpapers. Starting with a black and white print of a cluster of figures he photocopied it, cutting the copies to create a repeat-pattern.  That pattern was then printed in black on gold paper and pasted to the inside covers of the book to enhance its visual and tactile appeal.

Design by Neil Packer for the endpapers of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa, The Folio Society, 2006. Image © Neil Packer / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Also featuring in the display are works by Marcel Vertès, Janet Archer, Charles Keeping, Harry Brockway, Geoff Grandfield and Ian Pollock.

The books and artworks on display on the National Art Library landing represent a mere fraction of Folio’s output over the past seven decades. If you’d like to see more, don’t miss out on our dedicated Reading Corner just inside of the National Art Library main entrance. There you can sit back in a comfy armchair and leaf through some more recent Folio publications during library opening hours.

You still have plenty of time to visit us, as the display has now been extended until 1st May 2018!

See HERE for more details.

[1] Charles Ede, Folio 21: a bibliography of the Folio Society, 1947 – 1967, London, 1967, p.19.
[2] Typescript, “Draft Proposals for Publishing Venture”, The Folio Society archive, c. 1947.

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