Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Word and Image: Happy Birthday TS Eliot

"Trams and dusty trees
Highbury bore me.
Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.
My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised 'a new start.'
I made no comment. What should I resent?"

These are verses from 'The Waste Land' by TS Eliot - one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. Eliot was was born on this day in 1888.

Poems 1909-1925, T.S. Eliot, Faber and Gwyer Ltd, 1925 (JMR1065 Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture)

We mostly remember Eliot as a writer: the playwright and poet of key literary texts in the Modernist Movement, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He is lesser known for his long-standing role as the first editor and later director of publishing house Faber and Faber.

Recently, MoDA ran a project identifying significant book cover designs in our collection (we made an online exhibition of some them, Illustration Nation). During the project, as we perused shelf upon shelf in the collection store,  Faber and Faber books consistently stood out; grabbing our attention with their distinctive covers.

Book jackets have always been more than simple paper wrappers protecting printed text inside. Publishing houses like Faber and Faber have consistently used their covers to illuminate the written word. Through shape, colour and form, book cover designs visually explain, communicate and express core ideas of the text they wrap around.

Books in MoDA's collection published by Faber and Faber or Faber and Gwyer Ltd (JMR517; JMR295; JMR486 and BADDA2406, MoDA)

Eliot's poetry book shown at the top of this post, Poems 1905-1925, was one of the first publications  when Eliot started as editor at what was then Faber and Gwyer. Fast-forward to 2012 and the publishing industry is rapidly changing as it squares up to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Some feel that in this new high-tech environment book covers are becoming less relevant.

Considering the beautiful book covers produced during his time as an editor, I'm sure Eliot would be sad to see this aspect of publishing completely die out. It's heartening therefore, to hear of the success of Faber and Faber's recent app: The Waste Land for iPad, which is an artistic interpretation of Eliot's famous poem through objects, film and spoken word. On a day when we are remembering the birth of a great literary figure, we'd like to also give a big thumbs up to his old publishing house which is breaking new ground: using multimedia to visually express the ideas and content of literary publications in the way book covers did in the past. 

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