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Talking Dust Jackets: An Interview with Martin Salisbury


Martin Salisbury’s book on iconic dust jacket design

The author of The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970 reveals why he loves artwork from this era.

A former illustrator, Martin Salisbury is a professor of illustration at the Cambridge School of Art in the Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. He is the author of a book called The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970, which showcases many of the great cover illustrations in modern publishing and the stories behind their creation. Martin’s also written another book called 100 Great Children’s Picture Books, but today we are talking about dust jackets.

AbeBooks: Your book, The Illustrated Dust Jacket, covers 50 years of design but is there one particular decade that is more important than others?

Martin Salisbury:  “The 1920s was the time when dust jackets were most influential because that’s when publishers were just starting to realize the potential of the dust jacket as a marketing tool rather than a protective wrapper.

“My personal favorite decade is the 1940s, the immediate post-war years. It just seems like the most creative period. It’s been called the neo-romantic period, but after all that austerity there seemed to be a craving for art, and literature, and poetry, and beauty. Some people criticize that period for being slightly in-ward looking. But there were many great designs and paintings during those years.”

AbeBooks: How did you discover the techniques and mediums used by each illustrator to produce their jacket art?

Martin Salisbury: “Having trained as an illustrator in the 1970s and worked as an illustrator before I got involved in education, the print processes, the techniques and the media are things I am very familiar with. I can recognize the processes from experience. My books are printed by offset lithography but going back in time people were using letterpress printing where artists had to print each color as a separation so there was a much closer relationship between artist and printer. Today, the illustrator can create their artwork in any media, be partly digital, and there is no real need to work closely with the printer. Anything can be printed. Some artists are now limiting themselves to two or three colors and returning to the more organic look. It’s a reaction to the overtly digital aesthetic.”

AbeBooks: Out of all the jackets you’ve seen and considered, is there one jacket that is your personal favorite?

Martin Salisbury: “There are many. The Illustrated Dust Jacket is full of personal favorites and many of the reproductions are from books I own myself.  There’s one that stands out, the jacket to Time Was Away published in 1948 in the UK and designed by John Minton, an artist who I have somewhat of an obsession about. The design falls into the neo-romantic period. It’s a gorgeous wrap-around cover that evokes travel and in this instance it’s a travel book about Corsica.”

Martin’s book highlights artists such as Victor Reinganum

AbeBooks: There are a number of travel books featured in your dust jackets book.

Martin Salisbury:   “Yes, previously travel wasn’t as accessible to ordinary people so the power to evoke another place is key. Time Was Away – that’s a line taken from a Louis MacNeice poem. It’s about the languor of being in a faraway place. You also see it in cookery books when they were trying to show where the recipes were coming from, trying to be exotic I think.”

AbeBooks: Perhaps you can explain how dust jackets changed from being plain wrappers that were often thrown away to being pieces of art used to market books?

Martin Salisbury:  “The dust wrapper term has clung on but originally they were just that – wrappers in the shop. They would serve to protect the book until the point of sale and then be thrown away. Towards the end of the century, wrappers would have some typography, occasionally printed decorations, and then in the 1910s and 1920s they started to become these wrap-around artistic jackets and they became the norm.”

AbeBooks: Do you ever come across beautiful vintage jacket designs that you’ve never seen before and that stop you in your tracks?

Martin Salisbury: “Fortunately, yes, but it’s becoming less and less frequent. I visit secondhand bookshops and book fairs. One still stumbles across somethings. Sometimes I recognize the artist and sometimes I don’t. Recently I came across a beautiful little book called The Last of the Dragons from 1947 by A. de Quincey and illustrated by Brian Robb, who used to be head of illustration at the Royal College of Art, a wonderful artist. I snapped it up for a mere £5. It seems to be very scarce. It’s a great joy to come across something you’ve never seen before.”

The first edition of Fitzgerald’s classic novel

AbeBooks: Are dust jacket illustrators always credited?

Martin Salisbury:  “Usually, but in the early years it was more common for artists not to be credited. However, sometimes you’d see that the artist had sneaked a signature onto the cover itself. Every now and again, there’s a cover where it’s impossible to find who did it.

“There have been many examples of uncredited artworks. For instance, the cover of the first edition of Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald, a beautiful South of France Riviera scene. I came across a copy at a book fair in London and opened it up in the hope of seeing the illustrator’s name but the only thing I saw was the price tag which was £18,000. I was so terrified that I put it back and I still don’t know who the artist is.”

AbeBooks: What are your thoughts on modern dust jacket design?

Martin Salisbury:  “We are in a golden age again. The UK has seen a surge in hardback book sales, led the children’s book market and we are seeing beautifully designed books. They had to become more and more beautiful to compete with the screen. Jackets are embossed and spot laminated. A lot do hark back to that mid-century period and people are using printmaking techniques like linocuts and wood engravings which are in vogue again, even if they are artificially created digitally.”

AbeBooks: What about jacket design in places like Germany and Russia during this period? There must have also been some influential designs in these countries?

Martin Salisbury: “Eastern Europe and Russia has a fantastic history in book design but it often was constructivist in design or Bauhaus themed, while my book focused on more pictorial designs. The Eastern European traditional is a lot more abstract, and harsh in a way but very beautiful. The Weimar Republic was an absolute high point – there’s a wonderful book by Taschen called The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, but again more graphic than pictorial.”

AbeBooks: And finally what are you reading now?

Martin Salisbury:  “An extremely obscure book – based on the jacket design, which has been sitting by my bed for a very long time. It’s called Caribbean Nights by William J Makin and the jacket design is by Leslie Holland. It was published by Robert Hale in 1939.  It has the most beautiful exotic patterned design. It’s the memoirs of Makin when he was setting up a newspaper in Jamaica, it’s a mix between a travel book and a memoir. Absolutely fascinating.”

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