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Kauffer, E McKnight

Entry updated 3 October 2022. Tagged: Artist.

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(1890-1954) US artist and illustrator, born Edward Kauffer, active from around 1910; in 1912 he added McKnight as his middle name to honour a sponsor of his work (it is not determined if he ever legalized this change). Kauffer lived in the UK from before World War One to July 1940, when World War Two forced him to return home; the first of his circa 240 dustjackets – for D H Lawrence's Look! We Have Come Through! (coll 1917) – demonstrated an acute proleptic grasp of the feel of the future, once the War had turned into aftermath, through an adroit application of Vorticist and Futurist modalities. During this period he became well known for the 140 posters he executed for the London Underground during the two decades when its advertising was adventurous, and for other similar projects.

Though Kauffer was never identified as an sf illustrator as such, his work did convey a haunting, sans-serif, "futuristic" sense of Art Deco Urban Sublime. Examples include the illustrations for Harold Acton's Cornelian (1928 chap); the cover and nine plates illustrating The Earl of Birkenhead's The World in 2030 (1930); and covers for S Fowler Wright's The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928), the 1928 translation of Gustave Meyrink's The Golem (1915), Eimar O'Duffy's The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street (1928), and H G Wells's The Open Conspiracy (1928), The New America: The New World (1935), Things to Come (1935) and Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936 chap). Such work revealed en passant his Modernist instincts; the praise bestowed upon him by Wyndham Lewis, who dubbed him "the poster king", was certainly based on McKnight's early advocacy of Vorticism. The 1928 Wright, Meyrink and Wells covers noted above were three of eighteen commissioned from Kauffer by Victor Gollancz in that year for his new publishing enterprise (see Gollancz); Kauffer also designed the "VG" logo used for decades, without credit, by the firm. Gollancz soon switched to nonpictorial jackets to save money.

Kauffer's interest in the architectonic representation of Icons of Transportation, after the model promulgated by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti and his followers, was career-long, though his very numerous American dustjackets initially tended to abjure the Modern; his late abstract covers for the Bollingen Series from Pantheon Books did however memorably convey a sense of that series' magisterial intent. All the same, his most significant post-World War Two commissions were future-facing posters for American Airlines. Overall his work remained far more engagedly modern than that of most artists involved in illustrating Genre SF before his active career ended. It was not really until the rather more fluent Richard Powers began his long series of covers for Ballantine Books in 1953 that sf art once again engaged plastically with the twentieth century.

It seems clear that a persistent lack of critical interest in the practice and aesthetics of book cover Illustration has hampered a full appreciation of Kauffer's work and influence. Mark Haworth-Booth's E McKnight Kauffer (1979; exp 2005) – though published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which ostensibly held until 2016 dust jackets discarded by the British Library during the decades when Kauffer was most prolific – does not mention either Gollancz or any of the remarkable eighteen covers executed in 1928 for that firm, and peremptorily excludes dust jackets in general (many of which the V&A held) from its otherwise thorough checklist of works, an imposition of cultural amnesia corrected in Ruth Artmonsky's and Brian Webb's Kauffer's Covers: The Book Jackets and Covers of Edward McKnight Kauffer (graph 2021), which contains a full catalogue. [JC]

Edward Kauffer

born Great Falls, Montana: 14 December 1890

died New York: 22 October 1954

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