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2000-12, 328, Alan Rickard, Book Reviews, Publishing Design

Book Review

Alan Bartram. Making Books: Design in British Publishing Since 1945. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, 1999, 160 pp. 26 cm square paperback. ISBN: 1-884718-93-0 (USA), 0-7123-4633-3 (UK), $US39.95.

The immediate reaction to this volume, published by Oak Knoll Press in collaboration with the British Library, London, is pleasure. The subject matter is eclectic, covering publishing in Britain since the end of World War II in the field of poetry, fiction, art, sculpture, architecture, botany, cuisine and urban living, nationally and internationally. It is extensively illustrated with black and white photographic reproductions of art and design ranging from the abstract to meticulous lithography of landscape, cityscape, interior, figure work and floral motifs.

Initially the sequence may be a little hard to follow, but this reaction dissolves into a feeling of freshness and interest. It may be a publication to browse and return to repeatedly rather than to read systematically.

Landscapes and streetscapes include scenes which could be the Amalfi coast and the narrow alleys of Naples, with washing drying overhead, but which are actually from Bastia, though Rome and Venice are also featured.

There are reprints from volumes of Grigson and Rimbaud, Stevenson, Haskell and Kundera, amongst others, and the sketches and abstract watercolours of J.M.W. Turner are featured in several pages of photographic reproductions, not easy to achieve where Turner‟s work is concerned. These are from the book In Turner’s Footsteps by David Hill, John Murray Publishing, 1984.

Earlier in the book there is a revealing section on the early European paintings of Paul Gauguin, not illustrated but based nev-ertheless on the Scottish Academy exhibition of 1955 in Edin-burgh. It is interesting also to study the harmonious typeface varia-tions, reprinted from the exhibition catalogue, and their clarification of the text.

Discussed and depicted here are books, catalogues, bindings and dustcovers from the formal and traditional to the ultra-modern, as might be expected covering the past fifty years or so. Bartram, a freelance typographic designer, comments that he makes no claim to an Olympian overview of his subject, an impossibility anyway as some 100,000 new titles were published annually in Britain during the late 1990‟s and his selection has inevita-bly been subject to personal taste. Books, as he says, are better produced, in many cases far better produced, than during the necessarily austere 1940‟s, though it is easy enough to find shoddy production still.

Then again, the days when a book was published at a loss simply because it should be published, as with the practice, for example, of Victor Gollancz, are probably long since gone, swamped by the economic imperatives of the modern world.

I am not qualified to comment on the technicalities of print and layout and process, but must express appreciation of the result, which is strong with this volume. To quote from the author‟s conclusion:

Books score fairly badly as signifiers of social achievement. They stand apart from the disco-thud, designer-label culture of the beautiful people, with its consumerist priorities deliberately fostering discontent with our lot. Books can be judged by more permanent – and not necessarily Utopian – values. Let us assume, in this fast-changing world, that books have a future. In that future they may be designed in many styles, using techniques far removed from the pencil, paper and drawing board used for most of the examples I have shown. But however they are designed and whatever the means chosen, there are what I have called basic decencies of typographical behaviour, refined over the centuries, which relate to the human eye and mind and the mechanics of reading.

Alan Rickard



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