Ann Macbeth: Book Designer

An 1898 edition of John Keats, His Poems, generously gifted to GSA Library by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association on the recommendation of antiquarian bookseller Cooper Hay, offers a markedly rare example of a binding designed by GSA alumna and esteemed staff member Ann Macbeth (1875-1948). Her illustrious career at the school lasted between 1897 and 1929, coinciding with the School’s development of what was then a burgeoning art movement – now recognised internationally as ‘Glasgow Style’.

Macbeth binding

1898 edition of John Keats, His Poems with cover design by Ann Macbeth donated to GSA Library by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

The handsome volume is a compilation of John Keat’s romantic verse and features a frontispiece, title page, and illustrations by Robert Anning Bell, appointed Chief of the Design Section of the School in 1911. Anning Bell was the designer of the book-binding for an 1897 edition of Poems by John Keats that is also held in the Library’s Special Collections. Since both editions are published by George Bell & Sons, it is intriguing to consider whether Anning Bell would have recommended Macbeth as the most suitable designer for the second edition’s binding. Produced by James Maclehose & Sons, it is set in green Morocco leather elaborately gilt-tooled in the Glasgow Style with exquisitely wrought details to the spine, inside front and back covers, and edges. The distinctive Glasgow Style rose motif is repeated in the form of a crest on the front cover. An almost identical binding design for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, (illustrated in The Studio in 1901), was exhibited at both the Arts & Crafts Pavilion at the Glasgow International Exhibition (1901) and the International Exhibition of Decorative Art (1902) in Turin for being exemplary of the Glasgow Style.

John Keats

1897 edition with binding designed by Robert Anning Bell. https://gsalibrarytreasures.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/robert-anning-bell/

Beautifully decorative book covers were an effective method of exporting the designs of artists such as Talwin Morris, Jessie M. King, Archie Campbell and Ethel Larcombe to mass audiences at relative low cost. The trademark bold, geometric style of Mackintosh’s architecture, for example, is replicated in his own book-cover designs. Glasgow Style covers were frequently published by local firm Blackie & Sons (for whom Morris worked as head of the Art department) and its subsidiary the Gresham Publishing Company.

As successor to Jessie Newbury as the Head of the Needlework and Embroidery section in 1909, Macbeth is renowned for her pioneering teaching techniques in art embroidery and furthering the School’s international reputation in needlework. Her theories of needlework instruction and the ‘needle as artistic tool’ were disseminated in textbooks published between 1911 and 1929. A digital surrogate of the first and most famous of these books, Educational Needlework (1911), is available through the GSA Library catalogue. This classic text, co-authored with assistant tutor Margaret Swanson, became a paragon of instruction and remained on the Scottish school syllabus until the 1950s. Macbeth’s talents also extended to other decorative art forms including bookbinding, metalwork, ceramics decoration, and pottery.

Ann Macbeth

Ann Macbeth (seated) in an art class http://www.gsaarchives.net/

The ABA’s donation is a distinguished and extremely welcome addition to the Library’s growing Glasgow Style section and will take pride of place among our Special Collections. It also complements the School’s archival holdings on Ann Macbeth including hand-written correspondence to the School’s Secretary, and images of Macbeth teaching in the studio.

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