A Quality of Light: Vintage Classics’ Virginia Woolf series

Over the last two years, Vintage Classics has republished 14 of Virginia Woolf’s works in an ongoing series which includes her novels, essays and diaries. For the series’ cover designer James Jones it’s been an opportunity to use images from a range of photographers and create a set unified by the strength of its imagery

Over the last two years, Vintage Classics has republished 14 of Virginia Woolf’s works in an ongoing series which includes her novels, essays and diaries. For the series’ cover designer James Jones it’s been an opportunity to use images from a range of photographers and create a set unified by the strength of its imagery…

Take a look at any recent round-up of great book cover design and it seems that illustration and type-only designs are more popular than ever – photography, it now seems, perhaps less so.

But Vintage’s ongoing publication of the complete works of Virginia Woolf (based on her original Hogarth Press texts) has developed into a series linked by its great choice of photographic image.

The covers often use tight crops of pictures (there are four examples below), with some subtle tonal manipulation, all of which is overseen by Jones.

 

For the Vintage designer, the job of covering the full set – of which Street Hauntings (above) was the most recently published – began with an immersion in Woolf’s world. “Redesigning Woolf’s novels was a challenge, not just because of the endless options out there, but for the fact I hadn’t read any of her work beforehand,” Jones explains.

“I was surprised by how obscure and highly experimental it was; her work is distinctive, her style her own, and her words bold and new. And it was the words I was struck by the most, so I began visualising the first few paragraphs of her novels purely through typography.”

A detail from Jones’ first typographic idea is shown below (this was later exhibited in the Killed Covers exhibition at the Hay on Wye festival).

 

Jones says that, while keen on the type-based approach, the route didn’t convey “how contemporary her novels felt, and it would prove a challenge to stretch the typographic route across her many books. What I really wanted to bring across, and what I felt was missing from my earlier ideas,” he says, “was the sense of colour and light that I pictured when reading her work.”

Senior editor at Vintage, Frances MacMillan, concurs. “We wanted new jackets which would make potential readers rethink their ideas of this famous author; covers which presented Woolf as modern, relevant and surprising,” she says. “Woolf’s own beautiful, sensuous descriptions of light and water in The Waves were one of the starting points for inspiration.”

 

The Waves, one of Woolf’s most experimental books, was the first to be published in the new Vintage edition in April 2012. To the Lighthouse followed and set the tone for the resulting series.

Jones says that he and MacMillan picked out various passages from each book that could be investigated further – key moments, themes and setting descriptions all played their part when looking for the right images. The designer then researched photographs that helped to represent certain lines within the work, however abstract they were.

“We decided to go photographic, and give a wide brief – the main thing we were looking for in the photos was a certain quality of light: early evening summer light; hazy, sunny light; or cold London daylight,” says MacMillan. “Suffused colour, and over-exposed, bleached or tinted images seemed to suit the intensity of Woolf’s voice.”

“Cropping of these images was important, as it kept the covers modern and fresh,” says Jones. “A good example would be for The Waves. A wrinkled bed sheet. A window. A dark line across the horizon. All feature in the first few paragraphs, and I loved how with the right crop the bedsheets themselves resembled the title of the book.” The original photograph is shown below, beneath an image of the finished cover.

Giacomo Furlanetto, Millennium Images

 

“We wanted the photos to mirror her famous stream-of-consciousness style and represent captured moments, giving the sense of lives going on before and after the photo taken,” adds MacMillan. “Unusual details, or an odd crop, would suggest a unique, innovative point of view.”

Most of the images used in the set are crops of larger photographs but what’s perhaps more surprising is how tight the details extracted are.

For Jones, this was about focusing in on certain details in the images which would then help to bring the overall series together – as in the cover designed for Woolf’s famous lecture, A Room of One’s Own, which uses a small element from the right-hand side of second shelf of books in Matthew Somorjay’s picture, shown below. (Jones would then work with the tones, highlights and saturations of each of the images to bring them all into line.)

Matthew Somorjay, Millennium Images

 

“I wanted to zoom in quite heavily to focus on the shadows and the light falling against the books,” he says. “You can also see how the colours have been altered to fit in with the rest of the series. Each cover uses a different photographer and most of them were represented by Millennium images as they seemed to have the style of photograph I was after.

“Making each unique image work as part of a series proved trickier, but was solved through the colour changes and again the crops of the images.”

Matthew Strong, Getty Images

Tim White, Millennium Images

 

“When it came to the type – a version of Caslon – I wanted to keep it quite elegant and simple so as not to distract from the images,” says Jones. “

Each cover was great to work on and hopefully as a series they tie together well and represent the authors style of writing, which is still an active influence on many writers working today.”

The Vintage Woolf series is published by Vintage Classics. More details here. Jones is also one of the founders of the CMYK blog which charts the design of various Vintage books. For more of his work, see jamespauljones.tumblr.com or follow him via @jamespauljones

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