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Kauffer, E McKnight

Entry updated 15 June 2020. Tagged: Artist.

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(1890-1954) US artist and illustrator, in UK from before World War One to July 1940, when World War Two forced him to return home; 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. Though he was never identified as an sf illustrator as such, his work – like the cover and nine plates illustrating The Earl of Birkenhead's The World in 2030 (1930), or 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), H G Wells's The Open Conspiracy (1928), The New America: The New World (1935) and Things to Come (1935) – did convey a haunting, sans-serif, "futuristic" sense of Art Deco Urban Sublime, revealing en passant his Modernist roots and a familiarity with Futurist idioms; he was praised by Wyndham Lewis. The Wright, Meyrink and Wells covers noted above from 1928 were three of eighteen commissioned from Kauffer by Victor Gollancz in that year for his new publishing enterprise; Kauffer also designed the "VG" logo used without credit for decades 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; most of his post-World War Two commissions were for American Airlines, though his abstract covers for the Bollingen Series from Pantheon Books memorably conveyed a sense of the series' magisterial scope. His work was in fact 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 may be 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 it is 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 eighteen covers executed in 1928, and peremptorily excludes dust jackets in general, many of which the V&A held, from its otherwise thorough checklist of works. [JC]

Edward McKnight Kauffer

born Great Falls, Montana: 14 December 1890

died New York: 22 October 1954

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