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The Art of American Book Covers – The Arncliffe Puzzle

One of the mysteries that was unsolved at the time of our first exhibition of American Decorated Publishers' Bindings 1872-1929 was the artist responsible for the cover of The Arncliffe Puzzle. It has always been one of my favorites, with a hooded figure blending from within to outside a red-orange circle, holding a gold question mark like a sickle in one hand, and its gold dot like a ball in the other. It is one of the best examples of an artist playing with the picture plane on a book cover, using both color and imagery to achieve the effect.
Published on 07 May 2014
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By Richard Minsky


One of the mysteries that was unsolved at the time of our first exhibition of American Decorated Publishers' Bindings 1872-1929 was the artist responsible for the cover of The Arncliffe Puzzle. It has always been one of my favorites, with a hooded figure blending from within to outside a red-orange circle, holding a gold question mark like a sickle in one hand, and its gold dot like a ball in the other. It is one of the best examples of an artist playing with the picture plane on a book cover, using both color and imagery to achieve the effect.

The author is not identified on the cover, another mystery. It says "By the author of A Mysterious Disappearance." That one is solved on the title page, where Gordon Holmes is named. But with no designer's monogram and no comparable covers to help, the artist remained unidentified.

The author's identity was not exactly a clear giveaway, despite the title page attribution. Gordon Holmes was a pseudonym used by more than one author. It was shared by Matthew Phipps Shiell (who also wrote as M. P. Shiel) and Louis Tracy. They also collaborated under the name Robert Fraser. A quick search of WorldCat revealed that in later editions the authorship is attributed to Louis Tracy. But the cover artist was not identified.

More recently, in researching the design influences of artists of the period, I acquired a copy of Decorative Design by Joseph Cummings Chase [Wiley 1915]. This cover is illustrated on page 37, and the design attributed to J.C.C.

(Picture: Joseph Cummings Chase, The Arncliffe Puzzle, by Gordon Holmes (Louis Tracy)
New York: Edward J. Clode, 1906)

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ILAB is proud to present a series of most interesting articles originally published on Richard Minsky’s blog The Art of American Book Covers.

Richard Minsky has been making and remaking artists’ books for over fifty years. His tremendous work is documented in The Book Art of Richard Minsky, published by George Braziller Inc. in 2011. Richard Minsky founded the Center for Book Arts in 1974. His work has been shown around the world and remains in public collections, including the National Gallery of Art and The Victoria and Albert Museum. He has received many fellowships, grants and awards of recognition, including several from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Text and images Copyright © 2013 Richard Minsky. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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