Decorated initial C

harles Robinson was a distinguished designer of book covers, most of them created to frame and contain his own illustrations as part of a visual scheme. However, his work in this field has never been analysed. The oversight is surprising, given that he produced more than fifty trade bindings and was far more productive than many of his Victorian contemporaries, continuing to practise until the beginning of the 1930s. His later designs fall outside the scope of the Victorian Web, but those of the 1890s are interesting examples of period work.

In line with tradition, Robinson usually deploys the front cover as a means of projecting the book’s contents, typically in the form of figures appearing the text. His covers for Alice Meynell’s The Children (1897), for Eugene Field’s Lullaby Land (1900) and for H. D. Lowry’s Make Believe (1896) are prime examples of this approach, presenting a single figure as a sort of heraldic motif. He also varied this approach, combining his characters in multiples, as in the paper binding for H. de Vere Stacpoole’s Pierrett (1900), and another variant is the deployment of figures in triplets as part of a pattern, an approach exemplified by the design for Barrington McGregor’s King Longbeard (1898). Robinson further experimented with condensed compositions of diverse elements. His polychromatic and gilt for Lilliput Lyrics by W. B. Rands (1899) is a developed example, framing a single figure with symmetrically placed geese on each margin to create a magical, child-like, dream-like effect.

Three designs by Charles Robinson: (a) Meynell’s The Children; (b) Field’s Lullaby Land; and (c), Lowry’s Make Believe.

Robinson makes use of these elements as his lexicon of forms. Stylistically, he is bound by the conventions of Art Nouveau. Significantly, his books of the Nineties are predominantly published by John Lane and J. M. Dent, individuals who were interested in the ‘New Style’ and set out to reach progressive middle-class audiences by advocating the latest idiom; indeed, both issued publications by Aubrey Beardsley and were instrumental in his development of bold, modish covers for general readers. Robinson may have received similar encouragement and designed his Art Nouveau bindings in order to comply with his employers’ expectations.

Charles Robinson: (a) Stacpoole’s Peirette ; (b) McGregor’s King Longbeard; and (c), Napper’s ‘Silver School’ design for Squires’s A Sprig of Honeysucke.

Robinson was an efficient practitioner of the Nouveau book, although he treatments were influenced by a number of his contemporaries. His figures are described in the sinuous lines associated with A. A. Turbayne, as in his treatment of the characters for Lilliput Lyrics, and he often deploys the rhythmic patterns that were modelled by Charles Ricketts, Laurence Housman and Beardsley. A comparison between Robinson’s covers and those of the older designers immediately reveals his sharing of their common language, and he was directly influenced by the radical designs of Talwin Morris and the designers of the ‘Silver School’, notably Harry Napper and John Illingworth Kay.

Left: Robinson’s design for Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and Right: Kay’s design of Bayford’s The Battlefield Treasure.

His front cover for R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1896) closely reflects the impact of the Silver School designs. Configured as a rustic bower made up of vines that emanate from a flower-pot held by a child, this intricate gilt design is a perfect synthesis of figurative imagery and Glasgow-style abstraction; drawing on the Scottish vocabulary of forms, Robinson unites swirling tendrils with vertical shafts and Glasgow flowers. His emphasis, as in the work of the Glasgow-inspired John Illingworth Kay, whose Silver School designs were produced for Morris, is on the balance of apparent opposites: curvilinearity/straightness, verticality/horizontality, naturalism/abstraction. At the same time, Robinson asserts his own arch humour in the form of two frogs, placed on each side, that look at the spreading arbour as if it were a miracle of natural growth. Throughout his book-covers Robinson adds this sort of idiosyncratic, naturalistic imagery, nuancing a style that is otherwise super-refined and artificial.

His individual approach has other features too. One of his favourite strategies involves the differentiation of the front and rear boards, and the back-strip. The upper cover announces the theme, with another, related motif on the spine; the lower cover, however, is often decorated with a small, humorous device placed in the bottom left hand corner. This treatment mirrors his imaginative arrangement of head and tail-pieces, borders and ornamental devices placed on the free papers: uniting inside and out, his books are indeed a unified scheme. Lullaby Land is a prime example, and it is instructive to compare the pages and the covers.

By turns humorous and sweetly lyrical, all of these covers deserve close attention; Robinson is a highly accomplished participant in the discourse of Victorian bindings for the trade, and should be accorded far more recognition than is currently the case.

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Books with cover designs and illustrations by Charles Robinson produced in the late Victorian period: a list of characteristic titles:-

Aesop Fables. London: Dent, 1895.

Bell, J. Jack of all Trades. London: Lane, 1900.

Canton, W. The True Annals of Fairyland. London: Dent, 1900.

Cule, W. E. Child Voices. London: Rose, 1899.

Field, Eugene. Lullaby Land. New York: Scribner, 1897.

Garstin, N. The Suitors Of Aprille. London: Lane, 1900.

Lowry, H. D. Make Believe. London: Lane, 1896.

Macgregor, B. King Longbeard. London: Lane, 1897.

Meynell, Alice. The Children. London: Lane, 1897.

Motte Fouqué, Friedrich de la. Sintram and His Companions. London: Dent, 1900.

Perrault, C. Tales of Passed Times. London: Dent, 1900.

Rands, W. B. Lilliput Lyrics. London: Bodley Head, 1899.

Sand, G. The Master Mosaic Workers. London: Dent [1900].

Setoun, G. The Child World. London: Lane, 1896.

Stacpoole, H. de V. Pierrette. London: Lane, 1900.

Stevenson, R. L. A Child's Garden of Verses. London: Lane, 1896.

Created 28 June 2022