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Ainslie Hewett: Bookplate and Heraldic Artist (1880-1963)

By Edward Wilson Hewett

Originally published in Library Review 38 (November 1988), University of Louisville, p. 22-40. Republished online in 2008 with permission of the author.

Early in this century the attention given to calligraphy, typography, illustration and book design by such artists as William Morris, Walter Crane and Howard Pyle, and by the Arts and Crafts Movement, caused a revival of interest in the art of the bookplates - and incidentally had an enormous effect upon the career of my father, Louisville bookplate and heraldic artist (George) Ainslie Hewett (1880-1963).

Probably the two most influential aspects of the Arts and Crafts Movement were its emphasis on hand-work with simple, traditional tools and its admiration for medieval art as (it was assumed) a hand-made art of the people. But "hand-made" means small production, high prices and necessarily wealthy purchasers, not proper for an "art of the people," so compromises were made.

Illustrators, for instance, left etching and engraving (the techniques of Rembrandt and Dürer) for photo-engraving, first used in 1872. Howard Pyle's photo-engraved illustrations for The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) made this very likely a most important book in AH's formative years. The original art work was executed in pen and India ink, with additions and corrections made with opaque white (and even paste-up). This meant that white-on-black effects could be obtained, as well as black-on-white, thus uniting the effects of engraving and woodcut. It was a most flexible process that in the hands of a skilled artist could result in unusually rich and well-integrated dark-and-light designs. The photo-engraved plate could be made larger or small than the original, and could be printed in one or more colors (as many of AH's were: "tawney [sic] orange," "russet," dark blue and lavender, etc.). It could be made to look as much like etching or engraving or woodcut as one wished.

AH's originals are worked over very little with white, as a matter of fact, a point of pride with him; and he seldom sought to imitate other techniques, but learned to use the potentialities of his own technique. He became a master of the variety of marks and groups of marks one can make with an ordinary steel pen, as well as with the calligrapher's shaped pen-points.

Close study of his bookplates reveals decisive variation everywhere, not mere repetitious hatching to obtain darks: stippling, dotted lines, commas, doubled marks, areas hatched in opposing directions as well as crosshatching, checks, overlapped circles, etc.; and a wonderful variety of patterns and decorative borders. His favorite calligraphy was Gothic, nor did he like novelty styles, but his lettering styles are interestingly varied and juxtaposed.

His skill did not come overnight. As a Yale undergrad (Class of 1902) he supplied the "Record" with the usual Gibsonesque ladies forming in young men's pipe dreams; he also laid the foundation for a lifetime of study and writing in the fields of philosophy, aesthetics and literature. After his return to Louisville, he tried a number of jobs, including commercial design, but went East again in 1912, to attend the New York School of Art and Design, receiving two years' credit in a single year's intensive work. He returned to Louisville in 1913, where he made his home until his death, with one significant exception, and with at least two trips abroad. Not until he was nearing 40 did he hit his full artistic stride.

His first bookplates, light-hearted enough, date from before 1910, such as the Edwin Vivian Thompson plate. The book overlapping its circular fame is a visual adventure to be developed later, but in his early work he preferred a more straightforward frame-and-picture effect, as in the second Thompson plate of 1913, with its already superb calligraphy.

But with the much more inventive Frances Ingram bookplate of 1919, however, his period of fullest mastery of the bookplate form begins. (There are three sorts of bookplate design: calligraphic, heraldic and "subject;" AH was good at all three, but perhaps outstanding as a calligrapher and heraldic designer.) Surely the finest of his bookplates of the period comes at its outset, the thoroughly satisfying Minnie Lee Dodd Hill plate of 1919. Mrs. Hill was Dean of Women at the University of Louisville, and a writer and poet, I believe. In this design a complex layering of well-realized and varied elements climaxes in the tempting vista of "The World of Books."

(I was pleased to find, after writing the preceding commentary, that AH too considered this "the darling" of all his work. Several of the plates reproduced here occur in a list, jotted down in 1956, of his dozen favorite plates.)

Another work from this good year 1919 is the Bruno Alberts plate, with its Germanic heraldry and patterning. This was the brother of Ben Alberts, the promising portrait painter just then completing a dramatic full-length portrait of AH as a romantic young-man-about-town stock, pearl stick-pin, dove-gray gloves, walking-stick - a serious, even a sombre young man, clothed in black against a black background.

The art of the bookplate gives scope (one might even say solace) to a certain type of artistic personality. It encourages the use of a relatively familiar symbolism (Greek myths, heraldry, mottoes and "pithy sayings" culled from literature, and so forth) combined with visual material, illustrational as well as decorative, that unites the special and unexpected with the accepted and understood in a very comforting manner. As E. M. W. Tillyard remarks (of the Elizabethans), such "correspondences" are useful in the effort

to tame a bursting and pullulating world. Even if they could not tame a new fact by fitting it into a rigid scheme, at least they could help by finding that it was like something already familiar.

Indeed, after the First World War, AH shows a strong need to build up intricate, interwoven designs, each element containing its additions to the "correspondences" of the whole. The means are shields, plaques, scrolls, cartouches, garlands, and a myriad of framing shapes and devices, compactly arranged, often overlapping into one another's space, and the use of calligraphy in a variety of styles. All of these are means of organizing a complete visual "thought," the essence of which surely is that through self-cultivation and self-reliance one may live in the world.

To create with such diverse, even crowding, elements in a powerful overall design, as is so happily manifest in the Hill plate, surely meant a good deal more to the artist (and to his client) than mere decoration. "The Gothic is still my chosen type of design," AH was quoted as saying. "(It) combines logical structure with richness and imaginative detail. It combines symbolism with decorative effect as no style has ever done." And in his commonplace book he includes the following quote:

"One had so much rather be right than original! - having incidentally rather a better chance in so wishing of being original into the bargain."

It is relevant that, about this time in his life, AH came into stimulating contact with Frederick Wilson (1858-1932), Louis Comfort Tiffany's leading designer of (religious) stained-glass windows, an artist of major power and standing in his field, trained in England and a thoughtful, dedicated medievalist. After FW moved with his family to California (1923?), AH left Louisville to marry the Wilson's eldest daughter Gladys (1925), bent it seems on making his home in Los Angeles.

The tie with FW (unfortunately brief) must have been psychologically rewarding. AH's own father (Edward Anderson Hewett, a banker with the Louisville Trust Co.) opposed his son's artistic interests. By marrying Gladys Wilson (herself artistically inclined), AH would ultimately surround himself with a family of artists, two of them his own progeny.

The year 1926, when the first son was born, was artistically productive as well. California patrons were readily found; AH was a participant in a major exhibition of bookplates held at the Los Angeles Museum; and a confident good humor twinkles in such plates as that of Arthur Milton Quisenberry and the delightful monkey-business done for botanist David Hunt Linder, who had studied mushrooms (and met monkeys) in British Guiana on a Harvard grant.

AH's relaxed, assured skill as a calligrapher is demonstrated in the Robert Graham Evans bookplate of 1928, while 1930 was about the last bumper year, bringing such handsome work as the Leland Brock plate. The design seems not to have been printed; perhaps Mr. Brock (an organist) discovered that the name of the fabulous animal depicted, "cockatrice," also meant "an unpleasant person," or worse, "a prostitute." (As I child I became as familiar with cockatrices, wyverns and basilisks as most kids are with billy-goats, thanks to hanging over my father's shoulder while he worked.)

Well before this, however, AH had separated from his wife and had returned to Louisville, where (1928?) he opened a "Heraldic Studio" on what he chose to call "Fourth Avenue." A checklist printed in 1929 contains 114 plates, well over half of which were done for non-Louisvillians. He was being recognized as a leading designer (and collector) of bookplates. Moreover, a reconciliation with his wife was in the offing; she and their first child rejoined him in 1932, and a second son was born in 1933, the year of NRA: "We Do Our Part," announced the Hewett Christmas card that year, "By Producing Another Consumer."

The depression years affected the bookplate business adversely, but hardly the artist's skill. The Mary Dorcas Redding plate of 1930 is a delicious period piece, with its tour de force "Ex Libris" contrasted with the exquisitely spaced unicals of the name, and the floral patterning played off against the near-silhouette of the figure. While in the thirties his designs generally grew simpler, as in the Thomas Walker Bullitt bookplate of 1936, he was also capable of the formal elegance of the James Hiram and Mary Gloster Graham heraldic plate of 1930. Production of bookplates continued to decline after 1940, as glaucoma slowly affected the artist's sight.

Aside from their considerable aesthetic value these bookplates are part of local history. Here are familiar Louisville names: Atherton, Bullitt, Helm, Bonnie... Here are musicians, teachers, doctors: Leland Brock, M. L. D. Hill, Dorcas Redding, organist Frederick A. Cowles, and the busy obstetrician Alice N. Pickett. And there are the clubs and institutions: The Arts Club, The Players Club, the University of Louisville.

Perhaps at its best, the work speaks of that special time, "The Twenties." It was in Louisville a period of creative energy and civic dedication, leavened with a good deal of Jazz-Age fun. It was the heyday of the Arts Center, vitalized by Fayette Barnum; of the Arts Club with its scarlet-and-black rooms and theatrical enthusiasm; of Elizabethan pageants on country estates, parties in Turkish costumes - and more broadly of great ocean liners, John Held, Jr., Mah-Jongg and Prohibition.

A sociable man, AH gladly made one (with his folding kodak) of parties in the great "War Canoes" of the Louisville Boat Club, with picnics on Twelve Mile Island, and he loved the masques and mummery of the Arts Club, singing and acting in such performances as "Robin and His Merry Men." Indeed, his own bookplate bore the motto, "Motley's the Only Wear". He was a devoted gardener and landscaper, a proficient wood-carver and writer; he was a frequent reviewer of books for the Courier-Journal (John Dewey's latest or Lewis Mumford's); and in one way or another he was a familiar figure about town, and wherever men went for lunch: Mazzoni's, Kunz's, Imorde's, The Old Heidelberg. Ever the democrat as well as the dandy, he had cronies in the Pendennis Club (his father was a founder) and in odd little shops along Main and Jefferson and Market Streets, where he found clothing which only he could have worn with such grace. He grew ever more positive about the movies, and gradually came to admire Fred Astaire (and Ginger and Rita and Cyd) almost as much as his beloved Santayana.

He exchanged Christmas cards with artists all over the world, until WWII ended such civilized niceties. The making of the annual card began long before Thanksgiving; the printed design was his, of course, but we all helped to illuminate them with watercolors after dinner.

Around the house were many books; I remember especially the illustrated ones by Parrish, Dulac, Rackham, Pyle, Boutet de Monvel, Rockwell Kent, Paul Sample, John Bennett with his silhouettes; the "Seven Seas" magazines with their eye-opening Leica camera work; and the Disney dwarfs and Ferdinand in solid rubber, which he liked as well as we boys did.

Optimism and vitality glow through the finest of his bookplates and other works (wood carvings, coat of arms, illuminated poems and sayings, calligraphic memorials, toys, writings, and so on) and only gradually fade as Depression, Fascism, War and Post-War brought a "bursting and pullulating world" no longer manageable in mottoes and heraldic symbolism, as AH knew these things.

Still, he remained heraldic to the last. I once gave him a sculpture I had done as a U of L grad student: very abstract, very Arp. He painted 13th C. flowerets on it and put it in the garden. "Trifles," he would say, clearly enunciating the capital letters, "Make Perfection, but Perfection is No Trifle."

Selected Bibliography

Louisville Courier-Journal, Rotogravure Section, page 1, photograph (with commentary?) of AH in Spring Drive studio: July 19, 1922.

Book Plate Association International, 2nd Annual Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum, May 1926; brochure listing 34 AH plates.

Hewett, Ainslie, "Coats of Arms," privately printed brochure, c. 1927.

Spencer, Edith Emerson, The Bookplates of Ainslie Hewett, Yearbook of The American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers, Washington, D.C., 1929; included checklist, 1907-1929.

The Arts Club Bulletins, April, May 1964; re AH exhibition of bookplates and woodcarving.

University of Louisville, Library Review 34, November 1984; illustrates 6 AH plates from U of L collection.

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