Saturday, June 14, 2008
Rescued from Obscurity Part III "Handsome Books"
It was Gladys Peto's books (have a look at the sidebar for some Peto art and click through to Jeanette Payne's web site for a real satisfying wallow) that got me started on collecting old children's books about 10 years ago.
I bought her books because I loved the illustrations. The stories are, shall we say, less memorable. This isn't to say that she was a bad writer; some of her poems in particular were very good, but I find her stories were just typical ephemera of the day. An exception is her travel book for Egypt (The Egypt of the Sojourner 1926). It is written in a witty and breezy tone that I like (although hopelessly politically incorrect). The point is that I have a lot of her books because I like to look at them, not so much to read them. In my Peto collecting I was also lured into some sidestreets, particularly the children's annuals that were once so wildly popular. Mostly I love these for the cover art. The Joy Street annuals, about which I recently wrote here, are stand outs for being both beautiful to look at and genuinely literary. I think of them as the Rolls Royce of the annuals genre. I don't know what the Joy Street dust jackets looked like because I haven't see one complete. The cloth covered boards beneath them are, shall we say, restrained. The Blackie's children's annuals, for girls, boys, "little ones", what have you, really work their cover art and it is printed on the boards. This seems to be the case with most of the others I have seen (e.g. the Monster (meaning "big") Books for girls and boys, Rupert books etc.)
The cover, then as now, of course, was the main adverstisement for the book. The cover had to catch the eyes of aunts, uncles, Sunday School teachers, parents and children naturally. (Well behaved as I imagine our grandparents were, I am sure they pleaded for things in shops once upon a time). I am particularly drawn to the aesthetics of the 20s and 30s. This is my favorite era for book cover art.
It doesn't seem quite right to love a book only for how it looks, and I always read at least part of each book that I get out of curiosity but also a sense of obligation. I usually find at least something to like. My favorite article in the 1920s Empire Annual for Girls (that I bought mostly because it included an interview of Gladys Peto) was "Advice for the Family Failure." No one broaches subjects like that in such frank terms with adolescent girls today! Still, the reason I love these books best is for something to look at on the shelf. That always struck me as a bit of a guilty pleasure but I see I am not alone. Just before drafting this up I found a great-looking resource for people who love books for their wonderful quality as objects; a place in California called Handsome Books. They have a fabulous selection of children's annuals that are right up my street and it looks like all kinds of other beautiful things too. Just having a look at the scans there is a fun little trip. No, I am not on their pay roll. It looks like a great job though.