Judging Books By Their Covers – Cassia Price explores the Problems of Cover Design

Day by day, e-readers are making the trade of physical books more competitive, and though cut-outs and matte effects do not change a book’s content, cover art is becoming bolder and more experimental as a result of competition. There is a unique relationship between two art forms when a book is made which is perhaps relatable only to a film and its score, a reminder of just how necessary an attractive or striking cover is. The quality of the cover creates a distinct expectation of the writing inside, and so choosing a cover is one of the most important decisions a publisher makes in the process of a book’s release, especially in the ferocious fiction market.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral


Books have been design objects for centuries, and are often bought in this capacity by those who have no interest in the content, but rather in their aesthetic effect. The Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, dating back to the 7th or 8th Century and now in the British Library, were encased in embellishment and never designed to be opened, despite the sacred words within. Cover art can often reach a state of independence from the words within, and, in some cases, cult status among those who have never read even the book. Examples include some of the most recognisable books of 20th Century, and many modern novels too: the cover of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (see above) have posters, pencil-cases, and all manner of other merchandise based on their covers.


The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat


Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott
Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott


The current trend for cover art seems to be simplicity, with advertising for factual books like Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott showing the public how effective an uncomplicated design can be. However, fiction remains a little more decorated, and this can lead to disastrous covers, especially in the teen fiction section, despite this genre recently occupying many top spots in best-seller lists. While the Twilight Saga has striking colours and images on its covers, similar books like Cassandra Clare’s present a series of messy, poorly composed covers. Both are what one might call (however fondly) “trashy” but the differences still definitely command one’s expectations of the inside. A similar effect can occur with classics, as seen below in the contrasting Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Great Gatsby. The gloomy figures have a very different effect to that of the vivid example above, and yet they have both been chosen to represent the same story. Judge the book for the words and the object for the art, but judging a book by its cover can clearly only get you so far.


The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen
The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen


A problem with the increased pressure on a book’s appearance, its outer art, is that its contents can never be twinned exactly with a different medium. The pairing does not become a diptych, bonded by subject matter, however many editions are produced. They remain advertisements for the contents, just as full of untruths as adverts for anything else. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons simplicity has become so popular (see the new Penguin Hardcover Classics but risk a much lower bank balance), so that expectations are stripped away and abstract ideas can have precedence and judgement is reduced. Keep buying books for the reasons you always have, whether that means literature or design, because if you are reading this blog you probably care about the continuation of art for its own sake.


If you are interested in the best and worst of cover art, Flavorwire has an article on this subject, and a Dutch Booktuber, Sanne Vliegenhart, has a wonderful video on her favourite covers. I recommend both.


Photos thanks to:






An Englishwoman Abroad: Moscow through British Eyes by Cassia Price

With the Sochi Olympics underway, Meet the Russians hitting our screens, Londongrad on shelves, and borscht becoming a staple in trendy restaurants, Russia is making its cultural mark on London. In -10 degrees and a coat not at all thick enough, I found myself in Moscow, eager to see whether our capital had rubbed off on theirs in turn.

This colossal country straddles continents and its politics have been at the centre of worldwide controversy for centuries.

Nevertheless, having visited St Petersburg, I anticipated that Moscow would be as Westernised as other cities on the edge of Europe. I was surprised then to find that it revealed itself indifferent and even hostile to Western culture, even on first impression. So I found that although in both cities most people live in apartments, the large, monotonous Soviet blocks I saw around me in Moscow were a far cry from the cool, classical, shimmering palaces of St Petersburg.

Determined to see Moscow through the medium of its art, I was taken on the Metro to the Tretyakov Gallery.  Everyone talks about the Metro – it is the pride of the city. Chandeliers hang from the painted ceilings and marble lines the walls.  These walls are in turn edged with metal friezes of cannon and scythes and as I walked through the impressive underground halls I found myself thinking that modernity in Moscow was overshadowed by brutality. Remembering again the European glitz of St Petersburg, Muscovite beauty is a different breed.


Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station
Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station

When we reached the gallery I couldn’t help feeling the same slight unease. The rooms here are neither well cared for, nor made beautiful for the sake of the art on the walls. The Tretyakov houses a significant collection of Orthodox icons, whose medieval aura pervades many of the churches around the city. However, it was through the secular paintings of the early twentieth century that I began to see a European Russia.Western motifs pervaded the paintings on every wall, and once again I found myself comparing Moscow to St Petersburg, built in many ways as a celebration of the European aesthetic.


St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection
St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection


The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837
The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837

Between the two cities the nature of being Russian and the shadow that political turmoil casts upon each is distinct. The pastel surface in St Petersburg cannot cover what Moscow’s architecture reveals: its mathematical brutality would create a cold impression even if one were wrapped in mink.


The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan
The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan

I found it hard to understand my host’s explanation of Russian hostility towards LBGTQ+ rights: “Western” values are not Russian values. According to him it is a case of integrity, not a lack of progressiveness. One only has to watch Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad to understand how proudly, icily separate Russia is from Western Europe, and, indeed, from the sugary shine of St Petersburg. There is a depth to Moscow underneath the gilt glamour of oligarchy that will take more than a long weekend to uncover.

Photographs thanks to: http://www.museum.ru/m106 http://reiflarsen.tumblr.com/post/11431499982/the-ersatz-city-while-trying-to-remain-hopeful http://www.ecuad.ca/~vsager/FNDT%20150%20Spring%2012/icons.htmlhttp://www.railnews.co.in/the-moscow-metro-system-is-just-incredible/

Cable Cars, Copley and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores Boston’s MFA

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, was the third stop on my US travels of Summer 2013

 The polar opposite of the first stop on my US travels, Los Angeles, Boston is small, quiet, and pretty. Perhaps due to its colonial past or proximity to Europe it has excellent collections of paintings and sculpture in comparison with its West Coast cousins. There is the feeling of quality rather than quantity throughout the city, felt nowhere more than at the MFA. Housed in a building not unfamiliar to eyes accustomed to the British Museum and National Gallery, it exudes sincerity in devotion of art and design. Spacious and airy throughout, rather than empty as the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco felt, it has a diverse and extensive collection. Discouraged at first by the poor range of European art on the ground floor, restricted to two rooms of eclectic 19th and 20th Century work, the more I walked, the more impressed I became. Some beautiful Dutch work, and a striking Turner in one of the main galleries, which was a dynamic change from the surrounding still life immediately overshadowed the interesting but unfinished Gainsboroughs I had seen earlier.

Front view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Knowing very little about American art, I found the 18th and 19th century American portraits engaging and totally different in tone from what I had picked up from my AHA course in Northern Italy last Summer and from  English work of the same period. I felt that John Singleton Copley in particular, with his interesting range in technique and subject matter, differed from the European tradition. His subjects’ faces are often openly smiling and friendly, though they maintain a enigmatic and subtle quality that I found particularly appealing in my favourite painting from the gallery, a portrait of Mrs Richard Skinner.

Mrs Richard Skinner (Dorothy Wendell), John Singleton Copley, 1772

Another artist I was struck by was Singer Sargent: there is an unmatchable intimacy to his style that certainly merited the dedication of a whole gallery in the MFA to his work.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882


The Hippie Chic exhibition that was on at the time of my visit was underwhelming, but that may be a result of my frequent visits to the V&A. The single room had little atmosphere and said little about the design and background of the clothing on display. The exhibits were jolly but felt strikingly out of place. Despite this one flaw, the Boston MFA impressed me hugely, as possibly the most comprehensive and well-curated museum of its kind in the States.

2nd and 3rd pictures thanks to Museum of Fine Arts website

Cable Cars, Copley, and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores San Francisco

San Francisco, California, the second stop on my US travels of Summer 2013



San Francisco, California, has a much more complete world-view than my previous stop, Los Angeles. The feeling here is that San Francisco, leaning out into the Pacific, would rather find itself in Europe than the West Coast of the USA. The excellent Chinese food and surprising availability of decent tea marks this as an international city.


The entrance to Chinatown in central San Francisco


Where LA’s culture is reduced to its dominant industry, SF is alive with a variety of museums, ranging in subject from Japanese to Jewish culture. The latter was what I explored on a blustery, autumnal day (I am told every day is so in San Francisco). The Contemporary Jewish Museum was, as many of its kind are, quiet and bleak. It was not a weekend day, so its lack of business was excusable, but entering the white silence of the building was uncomfortable. If this was the purpose of the architect, it was crushingly effective, especially for someone visiting alone. The exhibitions themselves were interesting, with the Allen Ginsberg Beat Memories gallery revealing some poignant work, and the Beyond Belief pieces well-organised and emotionally captivating. However, I left both without buying post cards, which I see as the mark of an unsuccessful museum trip.


Photograph of Jack Kerouac taken by Allen Ginsberg in 1953


Despite the engaging photographs and wide range of spiritually inspired work, I think the use of space in the museum was designed in such a way that it was hard not to feel tense about any exhibition. This was the only building, apart from the distant Alcatraz, that made me feel this way in the city.


Our view of Alcatraz from the sea front in northern San Francisco


The rest of SF lived up to my considerable expectations. The architecture shows off its international origins, the tram (cable car) system was just as romantically dangerous as I had hoped (clinging to a railing and hoping not to crash into passing cars), and the city, renowned for its hippy culture, seems to indulge in art for the sake of fun.


A San Francisco cable car - romantically dangerous


Without the glorious weather that the rest of the state enjoys, the street art and places like Lombard Street (see below) shine instead. San Francisco has had a history of crime and difficulty, but having been scrubbed up by generations of hippies and hipsters, it is now not only safe but also alone in the happy atmosphere that may or may not have something to do with the city’s marijuana leniency.


Lombard Street, San Francisco


Examples of street art and architecture in San Francisco

Photographs thanks to The Contemporary Jewish Museum and my brother, Theodore Price


Cable Cars, Copley and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores Los Angeles


Los Angeles, California, the first stop on my US travels of Summer 2013


Junction of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in central LA


It’s very odd not to feel foreign in a place you have never been to, on a side of the planet you have never touched. In the case of Los Angeles, California, everyone thinks they know what they expect from this place and everyone is right. It’s glamorous and grotty, expansive and cramped, and you really do see the rich and famous everywhere if you know how to look. It’s a little like a work of art that is viscerally ugly but has a truth and complexity that is essentially winning. It’s America via Cannes. This is my first experience of California, and I really thought I would be disturbed by its vulgarity. However, after the initial shock of the shimmer and dust of this fake world faded, the vulgarity turned to charm.


Poolside at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel


The architecture is diverse and interesting, particularly stylish in comparison to the Mexican-inspired sprawl that makes up a great deal of this part of the world. One area in particular that shone from an artistic perspective was Silver Lake. It is widely known as the Hipster area, and although I could not presume to be one of that crowd, the brightly painted buildings, each with at least one stunning graffito, were the main site of our celebrity-spotting. Within the run-down and apparently unloved exteriors, there are stylish restaurants which all have things like kale and samphire on the menu. After my brother had his photo taken with Kate Mara, everyone in our small party felt much more likely to instagram our food or get an alternative piercing.  This, I think, is the effect of LA. Like London, it has a magnetism which draws people in and allows them to find their place in the mess of studios, 24hr gyms and vegan juice bars. However, LA also brands you with it’s style, even if your visit is only two days long. I would have seen more of the architectural gems of the city, had my stop there been longer, but the Getty Center was sacrificed for the live announcement of the 12th Doctor on BBC America, and before I knew it we were driving down the freeway to Burbank with film studios on both sides.


View of a freeway heading into LA


In retrospect, one of the features of this city that struck me, other than its size and style, was its arrogance. It is a one-industry town in which everyone is acting, from those I passed in hangars, cameras on them, to each sweetly-polite and sickeningly attractive shop assistant. The permanent “what if?” that hangs over the city (what if this person I am serving is a casting director? What if this is my chance to make it big? – this is, after all, the American Dream) makes it self-centred and indifferent to the outside world. Expecting this attitude to create hostility, I was pleasantly surprised, finding that it added to its integrity. However, writing this from the plane, I have higher expectations of my next stop, San Francisco.


Photos thanks to my brother, Theodore Price, and downrightred.com


The Palace? of Westminster: AHA alum Cassia Price discovers a use for beauty in the Houses of Parliament

For 8 weeks of my gap year I will be surrounded by artistic excellence on a daily basis. Six of these will be on AHA, but the other two, were at the Houses of Parliament. Entering through what became one of my favourite chambers, the Lords’ cloakroom, which feels like a Quidditch locker room with low-arched stone ceilings and iron pegs, the tone is immediately set. This place is as palatial as the name suggests. If this is the cloakroom the rest has much to live up to. I am familiar with the Palace of Westminster from school trips, but even seasoned political veterans tell me that the excitement never spoils. The porters and librarians told me that they still expected books to float from shelves by magic, and that the very coat racks make their responsibilities feel like privileges. The same rubs off on the Lords by all accounts, who are not paid for their work, but willingly attend even when they are wheelchair-bound, so deep is their determination to do well by their titles. (This is by no means all of them, but the members who were present seemed very different the often-publicised carelessness and backwardness of the caricatures of the place.)


The Lords' Cloakroom, in the holidays


On my first day I was swept into the House of Lords while still in session, and on the second, Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Seeing both Houses in use is the best way to understand their roles in UK politics. The Commons seems like a school hall, with booing and jeering on both sides, and folders of notes littering the space. The warmer, grander shapes and colours of the Lords Chamber inspire a more solemn atmosphere. This chamber survived the war in its original form, unlike the Commons, and the sanctity of age remains, helped by the undeniably lavish thrones that stand at one end, creating a shimmering and stately presence, a reminder of royal power.

The Thrones in the Lords Chamber, background
The Thrones in the Lords Chamber, background


A visiting colleague of my boss whispered to me in the House of Lords “I don’t think they had the word tacky in the 1850s”. Her observation, I felt, while gazing at the throne built for Queen Victoria, was apt, but the decadence of the Neo-Gothic Palace is not tasteless, but purposeful. It is home to tradition and innovation, to bureaucracy and efficiency, in surroundings that are not as austere as they seem. The rich red of the chamber and the gilt decoration gives an atmosphere that inspires respect without self-importance and a formal touch that was absent in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions.


The Commons during PMQ, with much standing and sitting, files on laps and restless jeers
The Commons during PMQ, with much standing and sitting, files on laps and restless jeers


The Lords: more pomp but a quieter setting for debate
The Lords: more pomp but a quieter setting for debate


As for the rest of the Palace, the room that made its mark on me the most was the Prince’s Chamber. While the marble, life size statue of Victoria on one side makes you want to bow or curtsey, the wives of Henry VIII that adorn the upper walls seem conspiratorial and inviting, seen together like a team, ready to wink down at willing assistants to their mission to help women have a hand in the political game. Smiling at Anne Boleyn daily certainly made me feel a little less intimidated.


The Prince's Chamber, though really a rather female dominated setting

Across Bridge Street from the Palace (or through a tunnel under the road) stands a totally different structure, and one little accredited for the work of Parliament. Portcullis House, home to much of BBC’s The Thick of It, is just as beautiful, just as official as its Victorian neighbour, but this 1990s structure, full of glass and metal beams and indoor trees, feels very much like the catalyst or the oil for the creaky cogs  that make up politics next door. The buildings mimic one another in their Gothic-derived styles, and this represents their functions perfectly, one built as a re-imagining of a centuries-old style to house a centuries-old institution, the other to re-imagine the same again, both adding modernity and relevance to tradition.



The Clock Tower and Portcullis House at the end of the day from across Westminster Bridge
The Clock Tower and Portcullis House at the end of the day from across Westminster Bridge

If I learnt anything in my fortnight at Westminster, it was that the Palace does not mean luxury, but a beautiful place that rewards the eye in return for good work and solid government. As we find out all too often, this is not always the case, and so this monumental building is a beacon of optimism as well as a Palace of politics.

Photos thanks to www.theguardian.com/uk, parliament.ukblogs.spectator.co.ukhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/5765138884/

Deadly Beauty: AHA Alum Cassia Price visits Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection


European Armoury I at the Wallace Collection


The Wallace Collection in London’s Manchester Square houses an eclectic assortment of exhibits, all of them of the highest standard. The collection includes Turner, Fragonard, and some of the Old Masters, as well as ceramics, sculpture and furniture of an extraordinary calibre. However, this was my second trip this year, and I decided to focus my attention on just one thing. The Arms and Armour galleries are, in my opinion, the most exciting and unusual part of the museum, in jarring contrast with the Parisian splendour that fills the rest of the building.



19th century German Parrying dagger in steel and gold, etched and gilded


The galleries house over 2,500 objects, originating from across Europe and Asia, and are recognised as the finest collection of its kind in the UK. Acquired by the Fourth Marquess of Hertford, and assembled by Sir Richard Wallace, this collection finds its origins in the fashions of 19th Century Paris, where military objects were an increasingly popular means of expressing personal wealth. However, the way the collection has been curated does not evoke the Parisian charm of the rest of the museum. The blood-red walls and glass cabinets give a solemn tone to the rooms, as if they were armouries lying dormant between battles. No labels are found in the cases, but the numbered plaques next to each mace, sabre and helmet, suggest a lending library for weapons. This makes the exotic and painful-looking Turkish daggers and Milanese maces dance threateningly through the imagination.



16th Century Milanese mace, iron or steel, gold and silver

The beauty and craftsmanship of these slices of metal are exquisite, adding another unique facet to the collection. I would have assumed that the most intricate works would be found among the ceremonial pieces, but I was bowled over by the rich detail of every sword hilt, every scabbard. The Needles, Excaliburs and Stings of the fantasy universe are surpassed, and it was hard, at first, to remember that these were remnants of history and not magical objects from a story.



19th Century Iranian helmet, iron, steel, brass, textile and gold

Fascinated by the opulence of these exhibits, I was then puzzled by their purpose. A talwar or an axe knife is not a work of art in a Wildean sense, but both are, at least, needlessly beautiful, and to consider the destructive nature of an attractive object is certainly troubling. These rooms of drawn daggers are threatening for a reason, but also reminded me of the enduring value of art. The fact that armour is designed in as much detail as the paintings next-door shows how even in the fundamental ugliness of the battlefield, appreciation for beauty remains.



19th Century Axe knife from Kutch, India

Photos courtesy of wallacelive.wallacecollection.org/