Gift of Margaret Armstrong Book Covers Adds to University Libraries’ Decorative Binding Collection

Posted: February 26, 2013 at 5:00 pm, Last Updated: March 8, 2013 at 10:59 am

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By Mark Schwartz, communications and marketing officer, University Libraries

One of Margaret Armstrong's distinctive book covers. Photo courtesy of University Libraries

One of Margaret Armstrong’s distinctive book covers reflecting the Art Nouveau style. Photo courtesy of University Libraries

If a picture paints a thousand words, then a book cover may be viewed as an indelible preface to the text.

Through a gift of adjunct communication faculty member Wendi D. Slagle, the University Libraries Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) is now home to a collection of book cover art by an important American book cover designer: Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944). Armstrong illustrated more than 300 book covers over a 30-year career as a freelance artist, and Mason now owns more than 50 books with Armstrong’s landmark covers.

“Margaret Armstrong was a rare woman artist succeeding in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the level she achieved,” says Yvonne Carignan, head of University Libraries SC&A. “She excelled at the deliberate lines and angular shapes of the Arts and Crafts movement and the flowing technique and natural motifs of Art Nouveau. Her covers are both aesthetically pleasing and historically representative of trends in publishing and art history.”

Slagle shares this about her passion for collecting fine binding: “I started primarily with Margaret Armstrong because I really liked her artwork, but I branched out a bit to other books that really caught my eye as well. I’ve always had a love of history, and thus old books; and so when I stumbled upon a website several years ago documenting a collection someone had put together of gorgeous bindings, I was hooked. From there I started to scour eBay and educated myself on Armstrong, and my own collection took off.”

Armstrong was the oldest daughter of an artistic and wealthy family. When she was a young girl, the family lived in Florence, where her father, a diplomat and stained-glass designer, practiced his craft. She later designed the cover and inside illustrations for his autobiography, “Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life.”

In the 1870s, her family relocated to Greenwich Village in New York. In their teens, Margaret Armstrong and her younger sister, Helen, designed holiday cards and party invitations. Their collaboration continued for several decades, with Margaret designing primarily book covers and Helen portraying human figures within the pages of the books.

Photo courtesy of University Libraries

Photo courtesy of University Libraries

Margaret Armstrong studied at the Art Students League of New York City. Her professional and commercial career began in 1883 at the age of 16 when she sent some menus and place cards that she had made to be sold at the Women’s Exchange in New York City. Armstrong’s first book cover design was published in 1890 by McClurg Publishing Company. She had submitted this first cover for “Sweet William” by Marguerite Bouvet under the name M.N. Armstrong because she was fearful of presenting herself as a woman in what was considered, at the time, a male profession of book cover illustrators. Armstrong designed other covers for McClurg, but it would be Scribner’s that would print half of her 300 bindings.

At the start of the 20th century, matching cloth and similar designs by Armstrong began to mark the books of one author as being in a set. She designed “set” bindings for authors such as Paul Bourget, George Washington Cable, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Paul Leicester Ford, Myrtle Reed and Frank Stockton. Her use of asymmetrical designs on book spines, covers and title pages was distinctive. Many of her designs compartmentalize elements as in stained glass.

By 1910, her freelance cover work decreased as she began to write. In her 40s, she traveled around the United States, and in 1911, she was among the first women to descend to the floor of the Grand Canyon, where she discovered new species of wildflowers. In 1915, she published her first book, “Field Book of Western Wildflowers,” which included more than 500 of her drawings.

Toward the end of her life, Armstrong wrote almost exclusively, and she completed a family history, two successful biographies and three murder mysteries.

Her work has been the center of major exhibits and private collections over the last 50 years. In 1968, the University of California published “A Checklist of Trade Bindings by Margaret Armstrong.” Other books documenting her “MA” monogram and the rare signed editions have followed.

“SC&A and the University Libraries are dedicated to preserving and building on this important collection of Margaret Armstrong’s work generously donated by Wendi Slagle,” says University Librarian John Zenelis.

Slagle also donated a larger collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century books with artists’ bindings to Special Collections and Archives, and the entire collection features 113 volumes.

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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