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Decorated initial I

n addition to his work as an illustrator, Dudley designed the covers for several books. King lists fifteen entries (pp. 10–16) and Ball twenty (pp. 147–48), and it is quite possible that others remain uncatalogued. Not all of his bindings are signed with his monogram ‘RD’, and several have been attributed on stylistic grounds or identified by external information such as advertisements appearing in The Publishers’ Circular (December 1 1859: p.598), and elsewhere. These issues of identification complicate our understandings of his applied art, although the same can be said of his fellow designers, John Leighton, W. R. Rogers, John Sliegh and Albert Warren. Dudley takes his place among these outstanding practitioners, and is one of those whom Sybille Pantazzi describes as the most important figures of their time.

Of course, all four were bound by the conventions of the mid-Victorian gift book; coloured cloth and linear gilt overlays were the constituents of their visual language, although between them they produced an astonishing range of variation. Intended to attract the reader-viewer, and usually published in time for Christmas, the bindings were flamboyant and ostentatious. Working within this narrow discourse, each artist develops an individual style. Dudley’s contribution is highly distinctive, and could not be mistaken for those of the other designers.

In contrast to the geometrical designs of John Sliegh or the rustic arabesques of Albert Warren, Dudley’s bindings include emblematic details that prefigure the books’ contents or position them within a discourse of values. Though decorative and pleasing to the eye, they manipulate the reader-viewer’s attitude to the book before the opening page has been turned. This proleptic strategy is exemplified by the front cover for Favourite English Poems (unsigned, 1862) which shows the elegant figure of Poetry, playing a lyre in anticipation of the verse contained within; and again by The Wedding at Windsor (which is signed), where the artist combines four shields of heraldic devices, each signalling the coats of arms of the Royal Family and its European connections. Most intricate, however, is the binding for The Atlantic Telegraph (1866).

The upper board for The Atlantic Telegraph is an emblematic scheme in which the book’s central ideas are represented in an apparently accessible iconography. The notion of the cable-laying as a collaborative venture between the United States and the United Kingdom is shown in the four roundels, each containing symbols of the two nations and positioned in the corners. The top left contains the Union Jack and the top right is the American flag; this national imagery is continued in the bottom left, which shows Britannia, while the bottom right, having as yet no equivalent sign for America, is a map of the Atlantic with the two countries on each side. The two nations’ partnership is further depicted in the central mandorla, which shows the Royal Coat of Arms above the cross-section of the cable, with the American eagle beneath it. Such national signs are obvious enough, but Dudley stresses the idea of linkage and relationship by endowing the British crown and its American equivalent with extravagant wings that almost touch, as if straining across the expanse of the ocean.

Indeed, the idea of connectedness, of laying a cable that will literally allow the two nations to speak, is carried throughout the composition as a whole. The roundels are contained within a gilt frame, and the surface is animated by a complicated rope interlace, a visual metaphor, we might say, of being bound by common interest. Interestingly, Dudley shows this connecting cord as a rope and not as the telegraphic cable; the ropes refer, of course, not only to cultural linkage but literally to the long maritime voyage that made it all possible. The sailor’s knots hold it all together; if the ship had not completed its task – the result of expert navigation and seamanship that allowed the crew to retrieve the broken cable of 1865 from the depths – then the telegraph would never have come into being. Dudley’s inclusion of the vigorous rope interlace is in this sense a tacit recognition of the efforts of the common sailors, a point he also makes in his idealising treatment of the men in his illustrations. Driven forward by an idea, so Dudley implies, the Atlantic cable is as much a product of technical expertise and labour as it is of investment and technology; indeed, its success or failure depended, quite literally, on how well the sailors tied their knots.

The front cover can be explained, in other words, as a rich and complicated field, denoting a range of messages; as in the reading of the Morse code that will travel down the cable, it demands to be interpreted. Its signs celebrate international collaboration and it features the heroic struggles of those who made it possible.

Yet its internationalism is not entirely even-handed, whatever its apparent equanimity. Though both participants are linked in seeming equivalence, a closer view reveals some tensions. It is noticeable that although Britain and America are the two co-respondents, it is Britannia that is shown as the greater power. The British crown and its symbolism dominate the composition, placed directly over the image of the cable, while the American eagle is placed in a subservient position underneath. A close inspection also reveals the fact that Britannia is in possession of two national emblems: the usual shield of the United Kingdom and another, here added on what is probably a unique occasion, displaying the American stars and stripes, albeit in a random pattern that incorrectly reports the pattern adopted at the end of the Civil War.

Dudley’s design thus enshrines a political sub-text that may reflect the preferences of the British publishers, may be his own, subtle invention, and certainly reflects the notion that Britain was the dominant power while America was as yet a relatively young state, one which was only at this moment emerging as a unified political entity. Published in Britain, the book was intended for a home audience; though it would be fascinating to know what Americans would have thought of Britannia’s re-appropriation of ‘her American colonies’. With these complications in mind, Dudley’s binding is converted from a paen to Anglo-American relations into an assertion of imperial might, with Britain absolutely as the senior partner making contact with a former colony after a period of internal conflict.

Left to right: (a) Robert Dudley's binding for The Atlantic Telegraph. (b) Arthur Hughes's binding for Tennyson's Enoch Arden. (c) Robert Dudley's binding for W.H.Russell's A Memorial of the Marriage of H.R.H. Albert Prince of Wales and H.R.H. Alexandra Princess of Denmark . [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Its politics make it slightly controversial, and it is interesting to compare its maritime imagery with that of other, apolitical treatments of the time. There is a sharp contrast between Dudley’s binding and Arthur Hughes’s covers for Alfred Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (1866). With its elegant patterns of fishes and bells, Hughes’s design is purely romantic; in Dudley’s, on the other hand, the scallop-shells symbolising the sea are added almost as an after-thought. In one, the ocean itself, with all of its Romantic associations, is the main subject; while in the other the sea is viewed as part of a larger industrial process, an inconvenient presence that is visually overwhelmed by the robust signs of modern technological activity.

Two covers by John Leighton: Falconer's The Shipwreck and Defoe’s Robinson Cruscoe.

Dudley’s binding bears further comparison with two covers by John Leighton, one of William Falconer’s The Shipwreck (1858) and the other for Defoe’s Robinson Cruscoe (1869). These designs are celebrations of the mystery and adventure of voyaging on the waters. Dudley’s, on the other hand, is a record of a technological change that will ultimately eliminate the romance of adventure, abolishing distance and time in a process that will mean that conversations can be held, through the telephone line evolving out of the telegraph, anywhere in the world.

With all of these political and economic inferences, the binding for The Atlantic Telegraph is still a decorative invitation to peruse the book. Resplendent in a livery of olive green cloth and gilt overlays, it is in many ways a typical gift book of its time. One idea, proposed by Day, was to incorporate a piece of the ‘Veneers’ of the real cable in the cover design, making it into a perfect souvenir. In the event this was considerable impractical, and the cable was only represented graphically in the form of a lithographic illustration.

Dudley ensured its visual appeal, whatever the limitations of production, by presenting his front cover as a vigorous piece of design. Dynamic in effect, it exemplifies the artist’s interest in movement – moving the eye through a series of interlaces and arabesques which animate the surface. This effect is developed in several of his bindings. The bindings of Sliegh and Leighton tend to have a still (and sometimes stiff) formality, but many of Dudley’s front covers are restless.

Henry Wills’s Poet’s Wit and Humour, a signed binding of 1861, is a complex pattern of strip-work which is arranged to create roundels, lozenge-shapes and a series of triangles, both regular and irregular. In the centre is a jester playing a harp, but the effect of playfulness is primarily achieved through the movement of the interlace, echoing the ropes on the front cover of The Atlantic Telegraph. The signed cover for Favourite English Poems (1862) similarly presents an animated surface, and the same could be said of the flowing movement of the foliate decoration on the cover for English Sacred Poetry(1862). Presented as elegant borders surrounding a central figure, these covers are among the most pleasing of their type, while also functioning as signs of what lies within the pages.

Dudley’s work as a book-cover designer might thus be described as complex and interesting. A considerable illustrator, he effectively turned his hand to producing a variety of bindings in which the common dominator is the quality of mind that created them. At once decorative and expressive, his binding show how gift-books of the Sixties, though usually considered to be trivial cadeaux, can also be objects of aesthetic and cultural significance: histories inscribed in cloth and gilt decoration.

Related Material

Primary works with a binding by Robert Dudley

Art Treasures of the United Kingdom. London: Day, 1858 [also with ‘wood-engravings by Robert Dudley’].

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progess. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1861.

Dickens, Charles. Household Words: Christmas Stories, 1854–58. London: Clowes & Co [1874].

Edgar, John George. Cressy and Poitiers. London: Beeton, 1865 [also contains 16 wood-engravings, by Doré and Dudley; binding].

Edgar, John George. Danes, Saxons, and Normans. London: Beeton, 1863 [also contains ornamented capital letters and tail-pieces; binding].

Edgar, John George. Historical Anecdotes of Animals. London: Beeton [1865].

English Sacred Poetry. Ed. R.A. Willmot. London: Routledge, Warne & Routledge, 1862.

Expositions of Great Pictures. London: Nisbet, 1863.

Favourite English Poems of Modern Times. London: Sampson Low, Son, & Co., 1862.

Kingston, William Henry Giles. Our Soldiers. London: Griffith & Farran, 1863.

Longfellow, H.W. The Story of Hiawatha. London: Kent & Co., 1860.

Lushington, Henrietta. Almeira’s Castle. London: Griffith & Farran, 1866.

Lushington, Henrietta. Haco, the Dwarf; or, the Tower on the Mountain. London: Griffith & Farran, 1865.

Lushington, Henriette. The Happy Home; or, the Children at the Red House. London: Griffith & Farran, 1864.

Monthy Maxims. London: Thomas de la Rue, 1882 [also contains his chromolithographs].

Russell, William Howard. A Memorial of the Marriage of H.R.H. Edward Princes of Wales and H.R.H Alexandra of Denmark (The Wedding at Windsor ). London: Day, 1864 [also contains his 41 full-page chromolithographs; coloured initial letters; binding].

Russell, William Howard. The Atlantic Telegraph. London: Day [1866] [also contains his 26 chromolithographs; binding].


The Twigs, or Christmas at Ruddock Hall. London: Castell Brothers, 1890 [Written by Dudley; chromolithographs and chromolithographic binding].

Wills, W. Henry. Poets’ Wit and Humour. London: Petter & Galpin [1861].

Secondary Works Cited



Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: The Library Association, 1985.

Field, Henry Martyn. History of the Electric Telegraph.NY: Scribner, 1866. 1901; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.

Graves, Algernon. A Dictionary of Artists, 1760 –1893.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880. London: The British Library & Newcastle: The Oak Knoll Press, 2003.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Pantazzi, Sybille. ‘Four Designers of English Publishers' Bindings, 1850-1880’. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America55 (1961): 88-99.

‘The Story of Hiawatha’. The Publisher’s Circular, December 1, 1859: p.598.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration: The Sixties, 1855 –70. 1897; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.

Last modified 18 November 2013