Lowell Thing’s Cover Treasure: The Life and Art of Margaret Armstrong, is an 8 by 11-1/2-inch, hard-cover, lusciously illustrated work whose lineage as part coffee-table tome, part reference book might obscure the fact that it is also a great read. Published by Black Dome Press, it is a virtual encyclopedia of the Art Nouveau-influenced cloth-book cover designs of a young resident of New York’s Greenwich Village, which represent the cream of a popular art form that flourished from 1895 to 1915. It was an era when mass-market books were aesthetically pleasing objects, bound in cloth of midnight blue, olive gold, russet, or cream and stamped in various colored inks with stylized images of twining flowers or vines, fanciful arabesques or mosaic-like patterns, in some cases embellished with gold leaf. The design might also incorporate a tiny vignette of a landscape, pair of birds, or portrait. The lettering itself, which Armstrong designed in three distinctive styles—the “Elegant Style” survives to this day in the cover of the periodical Foreign Affairs, whose long-time editor was Margaret’s younger brother Hamilton—are important grace notes integral to the design.
Thing, a Kingston resident who entranced local readers with his previous book, The Street That Built a City — McEntee’s Chestnut Street, Kingston, got hooked on the topic after he began purchasing old decorative cloth-bound books at garage and library book sales in the mid 1970s. At one such sale his eye was caught by “one book with the monogram MA, and that was the beginning,” he recalls. By 2012, he had collected almost all of the titles designed by Armstrong — 306 out of a total of 314. Creating her first design when she was just 20 years old, Armstrong was one of the most prolific designers and worked on titles ranging from fiction to classics to poetry to nature and travel books.
Prior to the 1890s, book covers were dull, bearing at most an “aesthetic boilerplate design of a Grecian urn or uninteresting Japanese stamp,” according to Thing. In 1895, after Art Nouveau revolutionized the design world, book publishers such as Scribner’s and Harper commissioned artists to design covers for specific titles, which were sold in the millions. What is special about Armstrong’s designs? “Her [best] designs seem alive and just jump up off the cover,” Thing said. “There is an ineffable energy, a close arrangement between movement and repose that is very satisfying. Another aspect is the diversity of her designs and her ability to work beautifully with different subject matter.”
Thing sets the stage for Armstrong’s art with an overview of the American art and book publishing worlds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He provides background on the first book cover designers, many of whom were women. He then moves onto Armstrong’s life and art and her extraordinary family, which qualifies for its own volume.
Margaret was born in 1867 on New York’s Stuyvesant Square and was a descendant of Pieter Stuyvesant. The family lived on an estate at Danskammer, on the Hudson River. When she was a small child, her father, Maitland Armstrong, was appointed consul to the Papal States and the family resided in Italy for three years. On their return to the States Maitland, an artist, found success as stained-glass designer.In 1888, the family purchased a townhouse on West 10th Street. It was across the street from the Tenth Street Studio Building, where artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Elihu Vedder, and John La Farge, all friends of the family, had their studios. Margaret and her sister Helen worked on their designs in a first-floor studio in the house, Margaret for book covers and Helen for stained glass, with both of them collaborating on book illustrations. The two sisters, neither of whom married, would occupy the house for the rest of their lives.
By 1912, book cover work was drying up as publishers replaced the cloth cover designs with illustrated dust jackets, which were much cheaper to produce. Margaret successfully reinvented herself, traveling out West and publishing Field Book of Western Wild Flowers in 1915. The field guide is a testament to her talents both as a botanical artist and a writer (she described the pincushion plant as “a quaint little plant, often no bigger than a billiard ball, with long, blackish, hooklike spines” and the Indian pipe as “an odd plant, all translucent white, beautiful but unnatural, glimmering in the dark heart of the forest like a pallid ghost”). She published a family memoir, Five Generations—Life and Letters of an American Family, 1750-1900, in 1930, and well into her 60s became a famous literary figure after publishing biographies of Fanny Kemble and Edward Trelawny, followed by a series of murder mysteries. She died in 1944 at age 76.
On Saturday, October 1 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Thing will do a book signing at the Friends of Historic Kingston Gallery, 63 Main Street, where you can purchase Cover Treasure for $49.95. It is also available directly from Black Dome Press or at Half Moon Books, in Kingston, and other local bookstores.