Introduction: Housman as a cover designer

‘Artist, poet, playwright, novelist, biographer, essayist, short story writer, lecturer, critic – multifaceted Laurence Housman has left a record of achievement difficult to surpass in length or versatility’. Such is William W. Hill’s assessment of Housman’s lengthy career (p.80), although he fails to mention that the writer was also an outstanding illustrator who produced a distinguished body of work as a designer of book bindings.

Left to right: (a) Binding by Laurence Housman for C. Rosetti's Goblin Market. (b) Binding by D. G. Rossetti for his own Poems. (c) Binding by Will Bradley for The Quest of the Golden Girl [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Housman was active as a binding designer in the 1890s, creating innovative liveries for his own publications and for those of others. Widely appreciated in his own time and extremely influential, his work had a significant impact on contemporaries such as Will Bradley and Jessie M. King. Goblin Market, Green Arras and A Farm in Fairyland were notable successes, and these ‘striking’ creations, as Michael Felmingham describes them (p.37), are prime examples of British Art Nouveau, embodying the aesthetics of the fin de siècle in a series of luxurious covers. Offered as a new generation of Christmas gift books, Housman’s publications are wrapped, as it were, in vivid but tasteful packages.

Intended for consumption by a large middle-class audience with pretensions to an interest in the modish and fashionable, Housman’s cadeaux are part of a long-standing tradition, continuing an emphasis on visual appeal that was earlier promoted in the elaborate coloured boards of John Leighton and John Sliegh. Yet Housman’s bindings present new challenges; signifying in several overlapping contexts, they offer a rich subject for interpretation. Positioned in the space between a series of alternatives, their effect is a paradoxical fusion of contraries that mediates between modernity and traditionalism, popular appeal and the esoteric, the innovative and the eclectic, the decorative and the illustrative. Such tensions reflect the sophisticated nature of Housman’s multifaceted achievement as a designer/writer; as in the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose book covers were a prime inspiration, his bindings are complex artefacts. It is surprising, nevertheless, to find that they have never been the subject of a detailed monograph in their own right. The following sections suggest ways of reading them stylistically, and as a medium to represent their texts.

Influences and style

Housman’s covers, like those of his contemporary A. A. Turbayne, are brilliant exercises in pure facility: there is nothing tentative about their patterns and images, and each work conveys a sense of intellectual focus and sustained purposefulness. Most are signed in the form of a monogram incorporating a capital ‘L’ and ‘H’ contained within a panel, and Housman’s emphasis on authorship is a clear statement of his notion of binding design as a visual space that transcends anonymous craftwork. As John Russell Taylor notes, he always had a ‘controlling hand’ (p.108) over the appearance of his publications, creating both the illustrations and the exteriors. Identifying himself as a book-artist rather than a technician, his covers are fine artefacts in competition with the bindings produced by the Kelmscott Press, while also partaking of the notion of the ‘book beautiful’ promoted by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson in the later 1880s and early 1890s.

However Housman is best positioned as one of those who worked within a popular, if not a populist setting. As noted in the section above, his covers are trade bindings intended for the general public rather than a select elite and was an important participant in reviving standards that had declined in the seventies and eighties, replacing the dull commercial work of these decades with ‘a new era altogether’ (Maclean, p.224). In this respect Housman is closely linked with other evangelicals in the field who set out to improve the taste of the bourgeois audience by presenting it with the latest developments in Art Nouveau. It is not known if he ever met Turbayne, but he was certainly on familiar terms with Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts, the champions of aesthetic values. Housman was familiar with the bindings of both of these artists, whose intense, super-refined imagery was the background to his own set of designs; Beardsley’s simplified covers are unlike Housman’s, but Housman was heavily influenced by the work of Ricketts, whom he met in 1890. Both men were employed as in-house designers at The Bodley Head by the publisher John Lane, and became life-long friends.

Left to right: (a) Binding by Laurence Housman for his own A Farm in Fairyland. (b) Binding by Laurence Housman for Marillier's Rossetti. (c) Binding by Jessie M. King for Aucassin and Nicolette [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Ricketts’s influence is especially pronounced in Housman’s binding for Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. This elegant book derives its ‘strange upright format’ (Taylor, p.108) from the envelope shape Ricketts deployed in his edition of John Gray’s Silverpoints. These books were published at about the same time (1893), a situation which has led Taylor to argue that Ricketts derived the form from Housman (p.108); however, further research confirms that the idea for the shape was derived from Ricketts and copied by Housman, and not the other way around. The second artist’s design also emulates Silverpoints in its imitation of flowing lines, and in its placement of the title in the top left hand corner, a device he deploys in several of his compositions.

Ricketts had a more general effect on Housman by promoting the aesthetics of Pre-Raphaelite design. The ‘omnipresent’ influence, as Lorraine Kooistra points out, was the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Housman’s illustrations are implicitly Rossettian, and the same could be said of his bindings, which are closely related to those of the older artist (Barber, p.321). Most important were the boards for Rossetti’s Poems of 1870. The delicate, organic fretwork blocked in gold must surely have influenced Housman’s endlessly recurring foliate patterns, notably on the front cover of Goblin Market but also on the binding for Jane Barlow’s The End of Elfintown and his own Green Arras. Rossetti’s decorative end-papers for the Poems also find an echo in Housman’s patterns of tendrils, and Housman’s homage to Rossetti is given elegant acknowledgment in his work for H. C. Marillier’s study of 1899. Traces of Rossetti and Ricketts can be found elsewhere in his designs, and there is always a sense of Housman’s allegiance to their aesthetic models.

But Housman was in himself an influential figure, creating a type of binding that was imitated by several of his contemporaries. The envelope shape adopted from Ricketts gained a wider currency in the form of Goblin Market, and this became a standard idiom for the Foulis and Blackie pocket books published in Edinburgh and London. The tall, elegant book was a mainstay of the Glasgow School, featuring illustrations and bindings by Jessie M. King. Housman was also a direct influence on the American designer Will Bradley, whose binding for Richard Le Gallienne’s The Quest of the Golden Girl is closely related to the patterns appearing on Green Arras and Goblin Market (Oldfield, p.26).

Style and function

Some of the most interesting accounts of late Victorian bindings are given by the designers themselves. Cobden-Sanderson proselytized on the importance of ‘truth’ and the principles of Arts and Crafts aesthetics in a series of lectures, and Turbayne wrote a pithy but revealing account in an article published in The House. Housman, on the other hand, was reticent. His only published comment was in his autobiography of 1936, The Unexpected Years, noting of the cover for Green Arras that it was ‘an extra good one … rich and elaborate’ (p.162), an indulgence to embellish the product of his own pen. This judgement seems unhelpful; yet ‘rich’ and ‘elaborate’ are loaded terms, and we can use them as critical tools. Housman designed two types of covers – one purely decorative, and one figurative – and these can be read in the light of his suggestive words.

His decorative covers are ‘elaborate’ in the sense that they are populated by dense, complicated patterns. Housman’s designs, like those of Turbayne, are congested and intricate, in each case figuring rhythmic, recurring arabesques in which natural forms are stylised into abstractions while still retaining some reference to a real object or motif. In Goblin Market the intertwined lines are versions of a growing vine, complete with stalk and flower; in .Green Arras and Marillier’s biography of Rossetti the same motif is given a variant form; and in the binding for .The End of Elfintown the pattern is a version of cresting waves or a spreading floral display: it is hard to tell which. Foliate motifs are certainly his most characteristic device and appear throughout his work in a series of elegant designs that are never repetitious and seem, in each case, to be re-discovered anew.

Organic in effect, they animate their surfaces with a sinuous energy that recalls the endless recurrence of Celtic and Romanesque decoration, teasing the viewer with patterns that never seem to end. Presented as an echo of the mythological creatures biting their own tails in early medieval manuscripts and sculpture, Housman’s overlapping and intertwining lines are presented as a visual conundrum that confounds the geometry of mid-Victorian covers and adds another dimension to the ‘refinement of nature’ found throughout Art Nouveau. Intersecting with elements of the Celtic revival of the 80s and 90s, Housman’s faux medievalism is indeed ‘elaborate’, a ‘rich’ feast for the eye, and endlessly fascinating.

This emphasis on decoration was a quality approved by Oscar Wilde in his celebrated essay in The Pall Mall Gazette on ‘The Beauties of Bookbinding’ (1888; reproduced at Read on Line), a review of a lecture by Cobden-Sanderson. According to Wilde, the best covers were those employing an ‘abstract decorative beauty’. Wilde scornfully denies that the covering of books can be more than a craft, suggesting covers can never become ‘a mode of expression for a man’s soul’, and remain an ‘impressive’ rather than a ‘expressive’ art. On the face of it, this pure, ‘impressive’ effect is what Housman aspires to.

Yet his designs also suggest the limitations of Wilde’s analysis. His covers are ‘elaborate’ in the sense of producing a striking effect, but they also work in a complex and contrapuntal relationship with the writing they prefigure and introduce. Like many trade bindings of the period, they act as external illustrations, projecting a crystallized representation of the text onto the book’s outer surfaces. This strategy is most obviously shown in his designs for two of his books, A Farm in Fairyland and The House of Joy. Figured as rustic compositions of simplified linear forms, these images signal key scenes from the books while also suggesting their arcane, mythologizing ambience. They are, as Wilde might say, ‘good decoration’, and yet they facilitate the process of textual interpretation, managing to be both ‘impressive’ and ‘expressive’. Housman takes this challenge even further in designs that are seemingly purely decorative but act, once again, as a mode of visual representation and exegesis.

The richest example of this dual function is the cover and format for Goblin Market. This book is the epitome of the expensive gift book which, in terms of visual impact, is in the same register as bindings by John Leighton and Robert Dudley. At the same time, its elaborate Art Nouveau patterns are a suggestive representation of Christina Rossetti’s ambiguous poem. Lorraine Kooistra has argued that the narrow format was a response to the poem’s short lines (Christina Rossetti, p.84), but the notion of accordance between the writing and the material book can be taken much further. Though entirely composed of a pattern, the binding elucidates the poem by making a series of cultural references and connections, acting as a sophisticated piece of symbolic pattern-making that epitomises the text’s central ideas.

It represents the poem’s setting in a neo-medieval past by embodying an abstract version, as Malcolm Haslmam observes, of ‘metal mounted bindings of the late Middle Ages’ (p.98), a connection especially realised in the form of the bands on the spine that connect the front and rear board. The text’s archaism, as a weird parable of some distant Pre-Raphaelite ‘long ago’, is thus figured in its material form. At the same time, the pattern’s endless movement is deeply suggestive of the power of nature and its sexual imperatives – the very themes that underpin the poet’s Christian moralising. In the poem the world is bound by recurrence and repetition, the patterns of nature that are predicated on circularity with everything happening ‘morning and evening’, summer and winter, flourishing and dying, youth and age, ‘calm or stormy weather’; and the same idea is expressed in the twirling arabesque of Housman’s Celtic design. The book’s calculated preciousness also invokes a sense of arcane mystery: it looks like a book taken from a fairy tale, and simply by looking at the boards we are prepared for what is essentially a child-like (if disturbing) fable. As luxurious as a jewellery box, and small enough to be hidden as if it were a secret, the book enfolds a complex text in an equally enigmatic and suggestive livery; ‘rich’ in suggesting interpretive possibilities, it is an ‘elaborate’ combination of beauty and meaning, expression and ornament.

The intelligence of Housman’s binding for Goblin Market can be traced elsewhere. Enshrined in a small but resonant body of work, his book covers are dense with meaning and symbolic undertones, while never disturbing their decorative surfaces. Others, such as Will Bradley, adopt Housman’s emphasis on a repeating pattern, though none match his capacity to mediate between the ornamental and the expressive, the visual and the literary, the exploration of visual pleasure and functionality. Binding was of course just one of Housman’s many activities – and in this art, as in the practice of illustration, his contribution to the visual culture of the late nineteenth century was extremely significant.

Works Cited and Sources of Information

Primary material by Housman and his contemporaries

Barlow, Jane. The End of Elfintown. London: Macmillan, 1894. Illustrated and with a cover by Housman.

Gray, John. Silverpoints. London: John Lane & Elkin Mathews, 1893. Cover design by Charles Ricketts.

Housman, Laurence. A Farm in Fairyland. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1894. Illustrated and with a cover by Housman.

Housman, Laurence. Green Arras. London: John Lane at the Bodley Head, 1896. Illustrated and with a cover by Housman.

Housman, Laurence. The House of Joy. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1895. Illustrated and with a cover by Housman.

Housman, Laurence. The Unexpected Years. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.

Le Gallienne, Richard. The Quest of the Golden Girl. New York: John Lane, 1896. Cover design by Will Bradley.

Marillier, H. C. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: George Bell & Sons, 1899. Cover design by Housman.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market. London: Macmillan, 1893. Illustrated and with a cover design by Housman.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Poems. London: Ellis & White, 1870. Cover design and end–papers by Rossetti.

Turbayne, A.A. ‘A Chat about Book Covers with A.A. Turbayne’. The House: a Monthly for the Artistic Home 2 (September 1897–February 1898): 107–109.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Beauties of Book Binding’. Pall Mall Gazette (1888); reproduced online at

Secondary Material: works cited and sources of information

Barber. Giles. ‘Rossetti, Rickettes and Some English Publishers’ Bindings of the Nineties’. The Library 25 (1970): 314–330.

Engen, Rodney. Laurence Housman. Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Felmingham, Michael. The Illustrated Gift Book, 1880 –1930. Aldershot: Scolar, 1988.

Haslam, Malcolm. Arts and Crafts Book Covers. Shepton Beauchamp: Richard Dennis, 2012.

Hill, William H. ‘Laurence Housman in Books: a Checklist’. Colby Library Quarterly 10:2 (June 1973): 79–83.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. ‘Poetry and Illustration’. A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Ed. Richard Cronin et al. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002., pp. 392–418.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design. London: Faber & Faber, revised ed. 1972.

Oldfield, Philip. From Boards to Cloth: the Development of Publishers’ Bindings in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Library, 1991.

Taylor, John Russell. The Art Nouveau Book in Britain. London: Methuen, 1966.

Wood, Esther. ‘British Trade Book Bindings and their Designers’. The Winter Number of The Studio, 1899–1900: 3–37.

Last modified 30 January 2014