Illustrator and Book Cover Designer

Decorated initial N

ary Ellen Edwards was a prolific and versatile artist. Signing herself ‘MEE’, she was one of the ubiquitous illustrators of the 1860s and provided some hundreds of drawings on wood for the primary magazines of the time, notably The Cornhill Magazine. Working in the poetic idiom of ‘The Sixties’, she is best known as the sensitive interpreter of Anthony Trollope’s The Claverings (1866–7). She also embraced the journalistic style of the seventies. In 1869 she was appointed as a staff illustrator on The Graphic, where she designed a series of hard-hitting pieces of social realism that bear comparison with the imagery of William Small and Luke Fildes. Leaving around 1880, she finally turned to children’s books, which she co-illustrated with her husband, John Staples. These small scale, delicate publications for the nursery mark another change in her work for the printed page: redolent of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, her rivals for the juvenile market in the 1880s whose work was printed from coloured woodblocks, her designs were produced in colour using chromolithography. Though a master of black and white, and skilled in drawing on the block, Edwards showed herself to be as adept in the polychromatic as she was in monochrome. A painter as well as an illustrator, she fused her two modes of activity.

Her critical reputation has varied. In her own time she was regarded as an outstanding artist, although later critics have usually described her as second-rate. Recent assessments have been far more positive, noting her importance as a woman who worked on equal terms with men in the masculine domain of the art world. But most notable is the fact that modern criticism has failed to recognize the range of her activities. Completely overlooked is her work as a designer of book covers, which she created for her children’s publications of the eighties. The scope of this work is difficult to establish, with many of the bindings having perished at the hands of their readers. Nevertheless, it is possible to establish her authorship of about a dozen examples of this type of design.

Book Covers

Edwards’s covers are a combination of motifs which appear in the books, original designs, and geometrical arrangements. She creates a seamless transition from the outer to the inner surfaces by presenting figures that appear within the pages. In Holly Boughs, for instance, the image of the girl opening an umbrella is reproduced from one of the colour plates, and the same is true of the character appearing on the front cover of Little Pussy Cat. However, neither is exactly the same as the illustrative image: Edwards changes the palette to light, pastel colours to accord with the light greens and greys of the upper boards, and adds other small details to create what in effect are variants of the colour plates. In so doing she creates subtle modifications which anticipate the books’ contents but do not literally reproduce them. She adds other elements in the form of a geometrical device – a roundel enclosed by rectangular border – and abstracted floral devices which mediate between the rustic motifs of in the centre ground and the books’ margins. The effect is elegant, combining uncluttered intervals with decorative imagery, and the artist completes the design with titling in the form of hand-drawn capitals.

Left to right: (a) Designs by Edwards for The Holly Boughs; (b) Little Pussy Cat; and (c), Told in the Twilight.

Other covers, by contrast, are entirely original. For Told in the Twilight Edwards promotes the book’s atmosphere in the image of two charming girls – one in a nightdress and bare feet to symbolize the impending bed-time of twilight, and another still in day-time dress to represent the other end of the period. The artist places these figures on each side of a stem embellished with drooping leaves, another sign of the impending nocturne, and frames the scene in a rustic border featuring blossoms.

Similarly conceived as original designs are the front covers for The Adventures of Two Children, My Nursery Melody, The Star of Bethlehem and The Stories Marge Told. These appear on books to which Edwards contributed illustrations and can be attributed to her on stylistic grounds: the figures are unmistakably hers, and so are the treatments of geometrical panels framed by radiating blossoms.

Edwards’s designs might thus be described as a combination of figurative motifs and symbolic iconography, a delicate palette, and a strict geometrical arrangement. Though only intended as children’s books, which could probably be served by any sentimental front cover, her works embody an interesting mediation between naturalism and the abstract values of design. In this respect her covers bear telling comparison with the bindings of Kate Greenaway; like Greenaway, Edwards deploys the Regency costumes of uber-cute children, and like her contemporary she unites figure-drawing with carefully-calculated arrangements which call attention to their qualities as patterns.

Edwards’s designs are further enhanced, finally, by the books’ high quality printing in colour. This was done by London-based Hildesheimer & Co., a company specializing in chromolithographic products of all kinds, from labels and Christmas cards to coloured bindings and illustrations for the book-trade. This company published and printed several of the designer’s books. Never less than cheerful, her bindings make a strong appeal to her juvenile audience, and represent a small but important corpus of work.


Covers designed by Edwards:

[Hughs, Mary]. The Children in the Valley. London: Religious Tract Society [1889].

My Nursery Melody. Boston: Estes & Lauriat [1881].

The Stories Marge Told. London: George Routledge [1883].

Weatherly, Frederick E. The Adventures of Two Children. London: Hildesheimer & Faulkner, 1884.

Weatherly, Frederick E. Holly Boughs. New York: Dutton [1886].

Weatherly, Frederick E. Little Pussy Cat. London: Hildesheimer & Faulkner [1886].

Weatherly, Frederick E. The Star of Bethlehem. London: Hildesheimer & Faulkner [1888].

Weatherly, Frederick E. Told in the Twilight. London: Hildesheimer & Faulkner [1883].

Created 15 November 2021