Picturing Vermilion Sands

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First UK edition, 1971. Art by Brian Knight.

Vermilion Sands (1971) is a story collection by JG Ballard which maintains a cult reputation even while being overshadowed by its author’s more popular (and notorious) novels. Most of the stories were written in the 1960s, and a couple of the pieces are among Ballard’s earliest works, but where many of his other short stories can read like the work of a writer with bills to pay, the tales of Vermilion Sands are much closer to Ballard’s core interests, filled with symbolic resonance and literary allusion.

Vermilion Sands, the place, is a near-future resort with a desert climate and an unspecified location, where the Côte d’Azur meets Southern California but the ocean is a sea of sand. The inhabitants are the idle midde-class types who populate all of Ballard’s work, and each story has a different artistic or cultural theme. Ballard was more receptive to visual art, especially painting, than many authors, particularly the SF writers of his generation for whom art was less interesting than science and technology. There is science and technology in these stories (some of the latter is now inevitably dated) but it doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The stories derive less from scientific speculation than from Ballard’s desire to create a future he would have been happy to inhabit himself, an alternative to the grim dystopias which proliferate in science fiction. The background furnishings also reflect the author’s ideal, owing much to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, a pair of artists whose works are often referenced in Ballard’s fiction. Given all of this you’d expect that cover artists might have risen to the challenge more than they have. What follows is a look at the more notable attempts to depict Vermilion Sands or its population, only a few of which are covers for the book itself.

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The Art of the Book

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Endpaper design by Reginald L Knowles for JM Dent’s Everyman’s Library series.

A few of the many illustration samples to be found in The Art of the Book, an overview of book design published in 1914. The editor was Charles Holme, also the editor of leading art magazine The Studio from whose contents and resources books such as this were easily compiled. The Internet Archive has a collection of Holme’s books, and this particular volume includes work from Hungary and Sweden, two countries which are often overlooked in creative surveys. I’ve selected illustrations here but the book contains many examples of binding design and page layouts.

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Initial letters and ornaments by Friedrich Wilhelm Kleukens.

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Strange cargo: things found in books

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The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden, City Lights Books (1972).

One of the additional pleasures of buying old books besides finding something out-of-print (or, it has to be said, something cheap) occurs when those books still possess traces of their previous owners. A recent posting on The Other Andrew’s page concerned book inscriptions, something any book collector will be used to seeing. Less common are the objects which slip from the pages when you’ve returned home. There are several categories of these.

1: Bookmarks

I have a substantial collection of bookmarks proper, from embossed strips of leather to the more mundane pieces of card of the type that bookshops frequently give away. But I also make a habit of using odd inserts to mark a place as did the previous owners of these volumes. The City Lights book (above) came with a very fragile leaf inside it which may well be as old as the book. Another City Lights book I own, the Artaud Anthology from 1965, included a newspaper article about Artaud. Newspaper clipping inserts are discussed below.

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