Ethel Larcombe: Book Designer

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Ethel Larcombe was born in 1879 to schoolmaster John Samuel Larcombe and his wife Louisa in Exeter, where she lived all her life. Her early influences included the book illustrations of Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, whose work she copied. However, the publication of William Morris’s influential Kelmscott Chaucer in 1896 inspired her to develop an arts and crafts style, and her influences shifted to painters such as Burne Jones and Rossetti. In following years she dropped the hitherto medieval elements in her work and concentrated on avowedly art nouveau designs for which she won many competitions. Her work also featured in The Studio and its special numbers. This style soon brought her to the attention of Talwin Morris, Art Director of Blackie & Son in Glasgow, who commissioned her to design several bookbindings for the firm and its Gresham subsidiary between 1904 and 1912. Even today, many Larcombe bindings are misattributed to Morris, though Larcombe’s designs are generally more crammed and busy that Morris’s.

We hold a number of Blackie bindings by Larcombe, some in several colourways. She also provided the endpapers, titles and initials to Walter Shaw Sparrow’s Women Painters of the World, published in 1905. Her work was known internationally: in 1902 a decorative alphabet by her was published in the German publication Beispiele Kunstlerischer Schrift, alongside an alphabet by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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