Cut Out and Keep

A quirky London shop has been providing the creative community with copyright-free imagery for 20 years. Mark Sinclair visits the capital’s most intriguing visual resource, The Dover Bookshop

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The Dover Bookshop cuts quite a distinctive dash on London’s Earlham Street. Its elegant sign hangs above a vibrant yellow frontage that proudly spells out its dedicated line of business: “COPYRIGHT-FREE IMAGES”. Inside, hundreds of volumes of Dover Books’ Pictorial Archive line the shelves: within lie countless images of historic alphabets, design ornaments, folk motifs, illustrations and graphic art in virtually any style imaginable. The shop is essentially a walk-in image library and, with Dover’s Pictorial Archive titles offering up their images permission-free, it’s become a firm favourite among creatives since it was established in 1986.

Twenty years on, with a catalogue ranging from medieval woodcuts and Indian iconography, through to Victorian floral borders and studies of electrical appliances, Dover prides itself on offering something for everyone, no matter how obscure.

“The original idea with Dover was to keep the classics in print,” explains bookshop manager, Tim Matthews. “Hayward Cirker, the founder of the Dover company, realised that not only was there a demand for out-of-print titles but that there were no royalties to pay. It developed from there with a low-price ‘value-publishing’ philosophy.”

Dover are a New York-based company who have been publishing out-of-print work since 1941. At Earlham Street – the site where the shop has remained since it was set up by owner Mark Oddie – the focus since the mid-90s has just been on the Pictorial Archive range. But how does all the work end up being copyright-free? “Dover reprint material which is public domain,” Matthews explains. “In most cases this means that it’s beyond the period allowed for copyright control – hence most of our material is an archive of historical graphic art with less examples from contemporary sources. In many cases Dover simply reprint old books or select the best images from them for a collection. Many titles have resulted from customer recommendations or from our suggestions for gap-fillers.”

Dover Books actually make up about 75 per cent of the Earlham Street stock – the rest is a selection of other graphic art books that wouldn’t be out of place in fellow design bookshop Magma, a few doors down the road. But here at number 18 the emphasis is on books as tools for designers: it’s a place where images can be sourced from “cut and paste” books (where the images are laid out for tracing or scanning) or from the newer range of titles that include an accompanying CD-Rom. “It’s a tried and tested formula,” says Matthews. “Dover tends to add to strong themes such as animals, floral, ethnic and tribal art, patterns etc ­– new books will generally follow a trend. But I’m sometimes surprised by the quality of the material they find – a recent case in point being Victorian Medical Illustrations.”

Matthews is also in a unique position to observe trends in image sourcing: what’s proving popular over a particular period, what themes people are drifting from and to in their creative work. “Heraldic images have become bestsellers in the last year or two,” he says. “Tattoo designs have been steadily increasing for years and pattern design is a definite trend for us. Generally, though, requests are very diverse.” Unlike most bookshops, however, the top ten bestsellers on Matthews’ shelves remain fairly static, with perennial favourites including the animal kingdom, Japanese patterns and a wide range of Victoriana – advertising cuts, repeat patterns and images of goods and merchandise from the period all prove very popular.

One notable fan of the bookshop was the artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi who, so impressed by the shop’s collection, offered to contribute the image which now adorns the shop’s sign and which became its logo once it decided to focus solely on image-based books: a drawing of the sculpture of Newton that Paolozzi was creating for the British Library’s piazza at the time. “Eduardo was always a very supportive and generous patron,” says Matthews. “He used to tell us that this was his ‘favourite shop in all the world’. He would come in regularly for inspiration and buy large piles of books as well as bringing his students in too.”

More recently, the artist and Radiohead-collaborator Stanley Donwood has expressed his love of the place, using a Victorian marque from a Dover title for the cover of Thom Yorke’s recent Eraser album. Matthews claims that, while he rarely knows which individuals are in the shop, or what they buy (a huge list of clients include Penguin, Phaidon, Hallmark cards, Shepperton Studios, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood), he sees the work everywhere; “in the paper, watching television…”

But the strangest thing they’ve ever been asked to source? Probably, owner Oddie recalls, “the back of a camel’s head”. “I think there’s very little we haven’t been asked for over the years,” adds Matthews. “It’s assumed that we have everything in every conceivable graphic style. There are hundreds of thousands of images, but still…”