Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part Two

This is Part Two of my series covering different illustrated editions of the six novels of Jane Austen. For Part One, click here.

My earliest Austen acquisition was the 2007 Folio Society edition of Emma, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat, which I purchased as part of my membership renewal. This is one of three matching Austen novels issued in that year, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion being the others. I’ve always wondered why there were no more — was the series never intended to be completed? Did the first volumes not sell well enough to continue? Was the artist too dissatisfied with his own work, or have a disagreement with the publisher? I am not in a position to know, but I’m curious.

To return to the book at hand, Emma is a pleasantly compact volume, with a medallion motif encircling the title on the spine, echoed in the publisher’s logo below and a gold-framed oval portrait of the title character on the front cover. This is set off by the wallpaper-like striped paper that covers the boards. The typeface is Bell, a more rounded and open font than Baskerville (which readers of Part One will remember as a popular choice for other Austen editions). It’s a friendly, appealing book, one that promises us a mannered domestic drama with pretty costumes. This suits the popular conception of Austen’s work, and is true to one layer of it, but misses some of the deeper levels.

Emma Puttapipat


Seven full-color illustrations were meticulously done in pen-and-ink and watercolor by the Thailand-born, London-based artist. In this gallery he has posted some of his sketches with notes, which are fascinating; among other tidbits of information he lets us know that he was only really happy with one of the drawings from the book, and dissatisfied with his Austen illustrations overall. I actually find his sketches much livelier and more engaging than the finished illustrations. Of these, the parts that I find most interesting are not the highly detailed figures, but the portions that he allows to be more empty and ambiguous: for example the background of the frontispiece, in which Knightley chastises Emma for her behavior on Box Hill. I admire the illustrations’ technical prowess and find pleasure in exploring all the meticulously drawn details of costume and deportment, yet they seem to lack some inner spark of life.


Austen Emma novel Puttapipat


Austen Box Hill Puttapipat
Puttapipat’s illustrations of animals (many of which can be found in other sections of his gallery) are absolutely stunning, but his carefully posed compositions do not quite succeed in capturing the complex human drama of Emma. I find myself wondering whether if he could allow himself to use a freer, more sketchy style it would help the characters to breathe more. He has said that he wishes he could have another go at Austen’s work, and I would love to see him make the attempt.
Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


Another strikingly striped volume on my shelf is Northanger Abbey, issued by the Limited Editions Club in 1971. This is the largest Austen I own, ironically as it’s her shortest and in some ways slightest novel. I think a smaller size would be much more suitable, not just for this reason, or to make the book easier to handle and read, but because it would be more appropriate to the story. Northanger Abbey is a light comedy that one wants to keep close for easy enjoyment, not a weighty tome to keep on one’s coffee table for show. The binding of unusual multicolored striped satin, which the publisher chose as worthy to be “draped over the windows of the finest hall of Northanger Abbey,” I would also find more amusing if only there were less of it.



I do greatly appreciate the beautiful custom-made heavy paper and luxurious letterpress printing within. The typeface again is Bell, and its friendly, open feel is better suited to the comedy of Northanger Abbey than to Emma, which is a more serious and mature book. I find the curved ligatures used for “st” and “ct” to be a bit much, however. Especially when they occur in clusters, as with the example above, they give me the impression of a visual hiccup. I’m also not fond of the display type, Fontanesi, used for the title and for initial caps for each chapter. As far as I can discover, it was designed in the 1950s as a “retro” style, unlike the genuine 18th century Bell and Baskerville. I suppose this was meant as a nod to the mock-Gothic pastiche of the novel, but it ventures too far into circus territory for me. As for the swash capitals used for the page headers — who thought this was a good idea? Well, I suppose for 1971 it all seemed quite restrained.


Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


The highlight here is the abundant illustrations, with twelve color plates in addition to the black-and-white drawings scattered throughout each chapter. The artist, Clarke Hutton, has a fluid and lively drawing style that lends a light comic touch, while in the paintings his strong yet subtle use of color and lighting brings the Gothic elements of the story to the fore. Hutton spent the first ten years of his career in stage design, an experience that shows in his dramatic compositions. I’m glad he put his hand to Northanger Abbey, a book that (though I may wish it were two-thirds of the size) I will certainly enjoy for many years.

I hope you’ll join me for the last post in this series, in which I’ll look at Mansfield Park (Folio Society, 1960; reset 1975; 1991 printing), and Persuasion (Heritage Press, 1977).

Summary of book details:

Published by The Folio Society, London, 2007
Introduction by Deirdre Le Faye
Illustrations by Niroot Puttapipat
Set in Bell
9 x 6.25 inches, 432 pages
Printed on Abbey Wove paper and bound in cloth with Modigliani paper sizes blocked and printed with a design by the artist

More about Puttapipat’s Austen illustrations on Austenprose 

* * *

Northanger Abbey
Published by the Limited Editions Club, New York, 1971
Introduction by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Illustrations by Clarke Hutton
Set in Monotype Bell with Fontanesi display
11 x 7.5 inches, 210 pages
Printed on eggshell-finish paper custom-made by the Mohawk Paper Company and bound in
satin-finish fabric with a leather shelfback label printed in gold

Review on Books and Vines (with much better pictures than mine)

From Austen to Atwood: The art of the Balbusso sisters

Eugene Onegin
The Handmaid’s Tale

The artwork of Anna and Elena Balbusso first caught my eye in the Folio Society catalog, with their stunning illustrations for two very different books, Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin and Margaret Atwood’s modern dystopian nightmare The Handmaid’s Tale. Then I noticed that they were the cover artists for two other books on my TBR list, The Goblin Emperor and Hild. And then I saw that they were illustrating original fantasy stories  for, and producing a new edition of Pride and Prejudice for Folio…quite a range right there.

Pride and Prejudice

What all these illustrations have in common is their formal sense of composition, attention to positive and negative space (often making use of silhouettes), and masterly use of color. Often they mix strong, simplified shapes with brushy passages that bring movement and liveliness to the image.


The Too-Clever Fox

The Balbusso sisters bring a bold, stylized approach to the problem of illustrating fiction, which is the question of how to bring out both the visual and the psychological aspects of the story, the outer and the inner. To this end, they play with the juxtaposition of diverse images, frequently combining human figures with elements from the natural world. Their ability to blur the lines between two realms, while keeping each one crystal clear, is one of their most compelling talents.


Who are these amazing twin illustrators of everything from Austen to Atwood? You can find some answers in this Folio Society interview. (I like the part where they explain how they started working together — it seems that it was just too confusing for their clients to interview identical twins separately.) As they are based in Milan, much of their work has appeared in European publications. This includes several more illustrated editions of classic English novels (such as Northanger Abbey) for a language-learning line, which ironically are not available in English-speaking countries, though I dearly wish they were.

Northanger Abbey

In a time when so many loud and fast-moving images are competing for our attention, it’s refreshing to find artists who can create a perfectly composed page that is arresting in its quietness. I’ll be looking forward eagerly to their next production, whatever it may be.

You can find many more beautiful illustrations by the Balbusso sisters as well as news and information on their website.


Beautiful Books: The Dark Is Rising

Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965)

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (1973)

Susan Cooper, Greenwitch (1974)

Susan Cooper, The Grey King (1975)

Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree (1976)



There are very few living authors who have not just one title, but an entire series of books given the Folio Society treatment. So when I learned that the Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, was available in beautiful new Folio editions, I was thrilled! And I was not disappointed in my investment: these are lovely books in every way.

The juxtaposition of the strange and the everyday is what I believe gives the sequence its distinctive appeal. In spare yet vivid prose, Cooper evokes the details of a specific place and way of life — whether a Cornish fishing village, a small Buckinghamshire town, or a Welsh sheep farm—with utter conviction, and then with equal conviction opens our eyes to the mythological depths that underlie every mundane moment: the great battle between the Light and the Dark. Introduced already in Over Sea, Under Stone, but handled with increasing mastery as the sequence progresses, it’s a mix that I found completely enchanting as a ten-year-old, and still do today.

The sequence is a masterpiece of atmosphere, with scenes that are creepy, homely, sordid, domestic, heartbreakingly lovely, and  uncanny by turns. When we have glimpses of ancient myth and folklore (Wayland Smith, Herne the Hunter–even Arthur himself), they remain appropriately veiled and mysterious, as the deep past must always be to us, caught as we are in the cage of modernity. This is one of the touches that Cooper gets just right.

When Cooper’s own inventions are interpolated, as in Greenwitch, they are equally evocative and haunting — true in a deep archetypal sense, if not in actual fact. She reveals in her preface to the Folio edition that the Greenwitch — an image that has for centuries been made and thrown into the sea by the women of a Cornish village — is her own creation and no such custom exists in this precise form. This does not prevent readers from writing to her or even journeying to Cornwall in search of the “real” Greenwitch. (Note that these prefaces by the author contain many such fascinating details, but should be skipped by any first-time reader who wants to avoid spoilers.)

Crafting an ending to such an epic is difficult. Having lived through so much with these characters, suffering and striving with them, it’s hard not to feel betrayed when we are returned to our everyday lives, no more to join the transcendent circle of the Light. But the experience has changed us, and lives within, and thus can never truly end. This is the mark of a superior work of fiction, to my mind.

The Folio editions have spines bound in buckram, a different jewel-toned color for each book, with Modigliani paper sides each printed with a complementary design by the artist, Laura Carlin. Each book also includes eight full-color illustrations printed on the heavy, textured Modigliani paper. The books are a good size for holding in the hand, and typeset in the slightly jagged, antique-looking typeface Elysium, which is nevertheless eminently readable. As with all Folio books, they come accompanied by a protective slipcase, in this case dark gray to match the endpapers of each volume.

The illustrations, done in rich, glowing colors without sharp lines, occasionally jar against my personal inner images, especially in the depiction of the figures, which sometimes have strange proportions or odd expressions. In general, though, I find them a fine complement to the text. Because they are not too narrowly representational, they evoke a mood rather than making a photographic record, leaving room for ambiguity and mystery. Like the stories themselves, they have beauty without sentimentality, a sustaining faith in light and love that nevertheless can look clear-eyed at darkness and cruelty. That is what I prize about the Dark Is Rising sequence, and I’m glad that these marvelous books have been put into a form that is worthy of their content.