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Book Review: Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate

Don Roberts, Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate (San Francisco: Fair Oaks Press, 2003). Hard-bound, 212 pp., with a 4 pp. foreword by Will Ross, 167 b. & w. ills., illustrated dust jacket. $32. The first edition includes five hundred numbered copies with a bookplate, designed by Christopher Kent as a tribute to his grandfather, printed from a copper plate on archival paper, tipped in on the front end paper. $42.

Rockwell Kent created one of the great bodies of work in American bookplate design. Over the course of more than fifty years Kent designed for individuals and institutions some 160 bookplates, almost all of which were originally drawn in pen, brush, and ink. Many of these bookplate designs appeared in two small limited edition books compiled and printed by Elmer Adler at Pynson Printers, the first in 1929 and the second in 1937. On the occasion of the publication of the 1929 volume, Gilbert M. Troxell sang Kent’s praises in the Saturday Review of Literature:

It is difficult, in considering the graphic art of Rockwell Kent, not to go into ecstasy. Two, possibly three, other men in America have his supreme gift of incisive delineation…. Technical sophistication is admirable, but when united to virility in design it is something to marvel at, and in these bookplates we have the two elements of successful drawing for reproduction united in work which is as distinguished as anything America has to show. [July 6, 1929]

Surprisingly, until now, virtually nothing has been written about Kent’s acclaimed bookplate designs. Perhaps the daunting task of wading through the formidably voluminous Kent papers has kept many at bay. Fortunately, one hardy individual has taken the plunge into the dark waters surrounding Kent’s life and work, bringing to light treasures hidden away for decades. The resulting Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate, which Don Roberts both authored and published, radiates the energy of a deep-sea diver who has fathomed the depths where fascinating creatures lurk. Roberts has surfaced to recount the tales he has seen, weaving a fluid narrative to reconstruct Kent’s many bookplate projects. The book is a piece of fine detective work and represents a great leap forward in the study of Kent’s artistry with pen, brush, and ink.

Kent possessed the rare combination of skills and strengths that defines a great bookplate artist: sustained mental discipline, technical prowess, intellectual resourcefulness and agility, and artistic capacity to compress an idea or an array of ideas into a small format. For his expertise at artistic reduction, Carl Zigrosser placed Kent in league with Goya and Blake. (See p. 51 of Zigrosser’s marvelous Multum in Parvo which means “much out of little,” a book-length essay he published in 1965 after retiring as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) Roberts suggests that Kent frequently brought an additional quality to his bookplate artistry-”the art of empathy.” Roberts proposes that Kent’s bookplates were not only a window into the soul of the recipient, but also a window into the soul of Kent himself. A well-conceived and dynamically authentic bookplate not only reveals something of its owner, but also conveys the bond between the owner and the artist — a spiritual “communion” of sorts.

This premise is a promising one and it is given visual resonance throughout the book. The creative evolution of Kent’s artistry (coupled, not infrequently, with the devolution of his temperament) is demonstrated through the reproduction of scores of pencil sketches and completed drawings for bookplates, by and large in chronological order and many for the first time. A few photographs — of phoenix-like birds and a back-diving water enthusiast who perished in a yachting accident — are also included as valuable visual aids in apprehending the bookplates Kent realized. An appendix provides an alphabetically arranged list of bookplates, which is a useful, comprehensive accounting of Kent’s work in this genre. The book also functions handily as an absorbing guide to the multidimensional world of the bookplate artist, whose success often depends on commercial instinct, business acumen, and personal charm.

Roberts is an early entrant into the field of what might be called “a new objectivity” about Kent. He has based his research on primary sources, predominantly Kent’s own correspondence files from which he quotes liberally (the “Kent papers”, on file with the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), rather than on documents, including Kent’s own memoirs, which may be politically slanted. Though occasionally lapsing into language that casts the pre–1935 Kent in the mold of a “determined Socialist” flaunting “radical politics”, Roberts by and large steers clear of the old subjectivity that has anachronistically portrayed Kent. As the artistic content of Kent’s bookplates confirms, Kent’s artistry prior to 1935 was virtually apolitical, and rooted in broad humanistic impulses and liberal leanings common to many artists of his generation.

Indeed, Kent secured the patronage of the haute bourgeoisie between the two world wars to become the court bookplate artist to the aristocracy of American tastemakers, including many uncrowned kings of American publishing-Arthur Sulzberger (The New York Times), Ralph Pulitzer (New York World), Bennett Cerf (Random House), Elmer Adler (Pynson Printers), Alfred Knopf, and William A. Kittredge (The Lakeside Press). The cachet of a Kent bookplate design also proved to be an irresistible attraction for many in the upper ranks of the art world, including Frederick B. Adams, Jr. (Director of the Morgan Library), Duncan Phillips, and Lester Douglas (Director of Art and Printing for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States). Other Americans, many of whom were accomplished in their respective fields of endeavor, found Kent’s artistry appealing and solicited his imprimatur. They communicated highlights of their life stories to Kent, at times with psychic intensity and at other times with robust humor, enabling him to better personalize the bookplate design to match their emotional complexion.

Kent was not the autonomous, independent artist he is often made out to be, as Roberts’s scholarship demonstrates. Kent depended on the kindness and loyalty of many — his patient wives who typed his endless correspondence, his patrons who suffered through his bouts of prickliness (Kent seemed to relish being his generation’s artistic bad boy), and his printers who often corrected errors of his doing. For about fifteen years, Kent relied primarily on Elmer Adler of Pynson Printers, whose impeccable printing standards attracted influential clientele, which he generously and freely shared with Kent. After Adler ceased operations around 1940, Kent shifted the printing of his bookplates and other works on paper to Abe Colish whose workmanship was not as technically virtuous. Ultimately, Kent began to recycle his bookplate designs, selling many to commercial bookplate houses, such as Antioch Bookplate Company.

Roberts had a field day with the Kent papers, so much so that the scope of his book spans the entirety of Kent’s life from cradle to grave and not the narrower focus implied by the book’s title. Initial chapters provide biographical highlights likely intended to make the book accessible to the American Everyman who may not have heard of Kent. (The foreword is designed to further enhance accessibility.) Chronicling Kent’s upbringing, education, and travels does provide historical underpinnings to many of the bookplate projects detailed in the book. But the early chapters frequently sideline the book’s focus and take up space that might otherwise have been allocated to more and larger bookplate illustrations and a discussion and analysis of the symbolism and artistry sustaining them.

In the context of art history, which is regrettably outside the scope of this book, Kent created a bold style that continues to be influential in the realm of the graphic arts. This stylistic longevity arises, at least in part, from Kent’s adaptation of two different kinds of “symbolism.” The first has to do with the use of symbols as representations of identity. In the preface to the 1929 compilation of his bookplates and marks, Kent characterizes the selection of a specific symbol as “the abstraction of a thought,” a process of mental gymnastics he humorously demonstrates is not without its complications. Roberts appends this preface (“By Way of Preface: On Symbols”) to his book, deferring entirely to Kent on the subject. Such deference has its merits, but Kent is frequently obtuse, digressive, and coy when discussing the bases of his artistry. This is never more evident than in the preface Kent composed for the successor bookplate compilation of 1937, also appended to Roberts’s book, for it shows just how unsatisfying and polemical Kent can be.

The second kind of symbolism (often written with a capital “S”), which is more pertinent to situating Kent’s bookplate artistry in the context of his time, is an identifiable European aesthetic movement that spanned the period 1886-1905. Symbolist aesthetics represent the visual language Kent appropriated for many of his bookplates. Symbolism evolved as an expression of a desire to restore the natural and ancient links that man had established with the world. For some, Symbolism became an exploration of the harmonies that exist between human senses and the outside world. Kent rigorously experimented with Symbolism in Newfoundland, where he lived and worked in 1914–15. The emotionally charged paintings and drawings that resulted from this sojourn are populated with imaginary naked men and women confronting the void with an indifferent universe as their backdrop. Between the two world wars, Kent distilled the emotional pathos and drama of these powerful images into designs for bookplates, creating an altogether American Symbolism that became part of his signature style. A quintessentially Kentian bookplate design might therefore portray a figure with outstretched arms, a reader with an open book, or a naked individual reaching for a star or climbing a ladder — each an expression of human desire and aspiration. Animals and plants also figure prominently in the bookplate designs of Kent who invests them with anthropomorphic qualities. Kissing giraffes, beaming flowers, and exuberant sproutings shooting forth convey what Kent perceived as the sensate life of the natural world.

Rockwell Kent: The Art of The Bookplate is a compelling work of considerable distinction that might have been of even greater utility had many statements, particularly those found in sidebars, been properly documented. The inquiring reader must constantly flip back to the six pages of condensed endnotes to ascertain the reliability of a statement made (or merely to find out who said or wrote what and when). Many times the quote or fact in question is not the subject of an endnote at all. Also, inaccuracies in interpretation or fact are not uncommon. Without reservation or citation, for example, Roberts’s historical narrative identifies Olga Drexel Dahlgren as Kent’s love interest in 1924, when Kent’s love letters to Ernesta Drinker Bullitt from that year — the subject of an article published in 1997 — offer convincing evidence otherwise. (The Kent-Dahlgren relationship surfaces a few years later, at the time when Kent draws her androgynous bookplate.) Kent’s bookplate for Yale’s Elizabethan Club is wrongly dated “ca. 1929″ when its scratchboard appearance and ornate style demand that it be situated next to, even precede, the other bookplates from 1913. (Yale alumnus and fellow architect George S. Chappell may have been the catalyst for this drawing.) Numerous typographical and factual errors mar the narrative’s overall strength (British humor magazine Punch for the American magazine Puck; England declaring war on Germany in August 1914, not early 1915).

Additional insight with respect to subtext, particularly with respect to deciphering correspondence and to perceiving the layers of meaning in bookplate designs, would have strengthened the book further. As an example of the former, Roberts’s quotes from a letter Merle Armitage wrote to Kent that alludes to a $10 prize Kent won for the 1929 bookplate he designed for Armitage. In actuality (but not noted in the narrative), Kent won no such measly prize, and Armitage was pulling Kent’s leg by indirect reference to a notorious scandal Kent had set in motion the preceding year. (The Harvard School of Business Administration medal for 1928, in the category of most effective artwork used in an advertising campaign, was awarded to N.W. Ayer. Kent publicly rebuked Ayer for retaining the $1000 prize, to which he felt his artistry was entitled.) As examples of omitted visual interpretation, Roberts notes that Kent’s early bookplate design for Ralph Pulitzer was set aside, but does not suggest that its macabre similarity to the R.I.P. of a tombstone, a possible allusion to the “death” of Pulitzer’s first marriage, might have rendered it tastelessly obsolete after Pulitzer’s promising remarriage. Images of violence and destruction in the bookplates for J.B. Neumann and Merle Armitage are provocative yet not explored. Also, there are many missed opportunities for contextualization. Roberts relates the fascinating episode of Duncan Phillips openly and critically rejecting Kent’s bookplate design cut in wood. Phillips’s criticism, however, was part of an animus building between the two that soon ruptured their patron-client relationship.

The overall tenor of the book is somewhat compromised at the outset through sweeping and unpersuasive remarks made in the preface that attempt to characterize the relative merits of Kent’s artistry as a painter versus his achievements (and innovations) with pen, brush, and ink. Other comments, often outside the limited scope of the book, are neither cogent nor based on art historical fact (the characterization of Edward Hopper, for example). Nonetheless, Rockwell Kent: The Art of the Bookplate significantly increases our understanding of the way in which Rockwell Kent conceived and realized his timeless bookplate designs.


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