Get in the good books

The Folio Society is celebrating its first 50 years with an exhibition and a book of its history. Lynda Relph-Knight explores what is a truly inspiring organisation

I’d heard of the Folio Society – but it wasn’t until I strayed into its exhibition at the Royal College of Art recently that I realised how relevant the society’s work is to design. Here were umpteen illustrations by contenders in a competition about book jacket design, egged on by an organisation clearly bent on celebrating the best contemporary artists and illustrators, despite its quaintly dated title.

Now we are promised an even greater visual feast as the Folio Society digs out some 250 illustrations from its archives as part of a retrospective at the British Library and publishes a book, Folio 50: A Bibliography, to mark its half-centenary. If you’re keen to see illustrations by people as diverse as Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake, sculptor Elizabeth Frink and designer, calligrapher and painter Edward Bawden alongside that of illustrators and artists Paul Hogarth, Ian Pollock and Roland Pym, don’t miss this opportunity.

So what is the Folio Society? The bibliography tells of the love affair its founder Charles Ede had with the work of William Morris; a schoolboy passion that prompted his first youthful purchase of a Kelmscott proof sheet annotated by his hero. This was the prelude to a collection of books published by the Nonesuch and Golden Cockrell presses he started towards the end of the Second World War. On being demobbed, Ede took a course at the London College of Printing and in 1947 founded the Folio Society, planning to create “the poor man’s fine edition” that married great typography with illustration but at a reasonable price.

There’s a strong hint of Victorian benevolence to the idea, probably borrowed from Morris and his clan. But according to Ede, the time was right. The war had changed everything, creating opportunities for all. “The arts, not least literature, were to be made more available,” Ede observed, “and there was a new consciousness of the importance of good design.”

Life began for the society in a Soho garret, shared with the Golden Cockrell Press, with the unfulfilled aim of publishing a book a month. Times were tough for Ede and friends, and initiatives in the Fifties to found a complementary Record Club and regular poetry reading sessions floundered. A Collector’s Corner where people could buy manuscript pages and a fine art gallery proved more successful and the society survived. But for all its diversions, book publishing has remained its raison d’etre and the founder’s promise to produce “editions of the world’s great literature, a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of every man” is still its pledge today.

A fortunate side benefit for designers is the commissioning of so many great illustrators. The exhibition promises a wealth of techniques and styles, including early works such as Bawden’s 1948 dust jacket design for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Nigel Lambourne’s chalk drawing for the 1954 edition of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Bang up-to-date are watercolours by Pym for William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Paul Cox for PG Wodehouse’s Right Ho Jeeves, both published last year.

If the show is for anyone interested in good graphics, the bibliography is for the purist. Essays by the likes of Quentin Blake; compiler Paul Nash and Ede talk about the theories of book design, while the account of each Folio Society edition doesn’t stint on details of typography and binding. Not an easy tome to flick through, though some of the illustrations are a delight.

Fifty years of the Folio Society is on at the British Library Galleries until 27 April; Folio 50: A Bibliography compiled by Paul W Nash is available from the Folio Society, price 50.>

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