Chapter 6

Ryerson Press and the Art of Book Design

In June 1920, after Lorne Pierce was hired by book steward Samuel Fallis to serve at the newly named Ryerson Press, a new era in book design commenced. Hired by Fallis with a general mission “to revitalize” the organization’s “Canadian [book] list,” Pierce recorded in his diary that he had been given “a real he-man’s job” of remaking the educational and trade book publishing arm of the Methodist Book and Publishing House into “the cultural mecca of Canada.”1 The First World War had shaped Pierce’s nationalist belief in a new Canada. He also felt empowered with and by the “splendid” new production facilities in the organization’s building on Queen Street West2 and by the emergence in 1925 of the United Church of Canada (the result of a merger of Canadian Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches). In the 1920s, the Ryerson Press also faced added pressures for profits, something Pierce would keenly feel, especially after his official title changed in 1922 from “literary critic and advisor to ministers” to “general editor.”3

As an editorial figure in the local book publishing industry, Pierce was welcomed into the arts community of Toronto, where he encountered a collegial group of journalists, writers, book collectors, and artists in venues such as the city’s Arts and Letters Club. There he met artist Lawren Harris, along with other members of the Group of Seven, whose paintings and vision Pierce enthusiastically embraced.4 Exposure to art, Pierce believed, was an important element in appreciating “the spirit of Canada,”5 and he soon made Canadian art a vital part of his literary mission. Pierce brought authors and artists together as part of his long-term commitment to the production of well-designed and attractive books.6

Illustration proved key to the new vision of the Ryerson Press, for it was through illustration that Pierce began the visual transformation of its publications. For some, Pierce’s approach to the physical appearance of Ryerson’s books was a “revolution.”7 In reality, Pierce was aware that rival publishers such as McClelland and Stewart were already far ahead in their approaches to design8 and were taking advantage of local artistic talent. In addition to teaching and education, most Toronto artists working professionally before 1960 were substantially involved in commercial advertising, graphic design, and illustration.9 The illustration work offered by publishers and the growing popularity of decorated dust jackets were significant sources of income. Ryerson Press became a valued client.

Complete Poems of Tom MacInnes, dust jacket

Despite Pierce’s lofty goals, illustration would still be used sparingly and on a project-by-project basis. The “first [visually] outstanding books” Pierce believed he published were William Arthur Deacon’s Pens and Pirates and E.J. Pratt’s Newfoundland Verse, both issued in 1923 with illustrations and designs by Pratt’s friend and Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley. That same year, Varley produced the impressive cover design for the Complete Poems of Tom MacInnes.10 Pierce also published works by Wilson MacDonald, a popular poet and illustrator of his own work; and, in 1925, the editor commissioned another Group of Seven artist, J.E.H. MacDonald, to design the covers for his new poetry series, the Ryerson Chap-books (1925-1960). During his editorship, Pierce gathered around him some of the most talented book artists of his day to create books that are now recognized highlights of twentieth-century Canadian book design. Many artists, including C.W. Jefferys, members of the Group of Seven, and Thoreau MacDonald, all enjoyed the patronage and employment of the Ryerson Press.11

Although many of the binding and press traditions continued after 1919, Ryerson did innovate early in Pierce’s editorship by working with two artists to create a brand for Ryerson publications that made many of their books instantly recognizable for more than thirty years. C.W. Jefferys (1869-1951) and Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989) were the two most important artists associated with Ryerson Press and they were to shape and influence the look of many Ryerson publications well into the early 1960s.

Builders of the Canadian Commonwealth, endpapers

C.W. Jefferys was Pierce’s neighbour in York Mills, and they not only shared a “close and enduring friendship,”12 but an “utter devotion” to “the history and tradition of Canada, its great characters and outstanding events.”13 Jefferys came into contact with Pierce in 1921 when Ryerson published George M. Wrong’s Ontario Public School History of Canada and Ontario Public School History of England.14 The association continued until the artist’s death with the final volume of A Picture Gallery of Canadian History in 1950. Jefferys’s detailed drawings provided visual interpretations of Canadian history for generations of students and his work was the backbone of Ryerson’s profitable educational publishing program. Jefferys became the “dominant visual mythmaker of Canada’s past in the first half of the 20th century,”15 with his illustrations an immediately recognizable feature of a Ryerson textbook or historical publication.

In her biography of Lorne Pierce, Sandra Campbell notes that the editor and Jefferys “shared a proselytizing vision of Canada’s past.”16 In contemplating the artist’s work, she reflects, “The images in Jefferys’s oeuvre unfold in epic linear fashion from New France to turn-of-the-century Canada.”17 In analyzing some of his illustrations, however, Campbell problematizes this narrow approach to history. In Jefferys’s illustration “Champlain on Georgian Bay,” she notes, for example: “the explorer looks out from a height of land, his European figure dominating both the landscape and the aboriginals below … Native onlookers are clearly acolytes in a symbolic tableau in which an imaginative conquest of the land is suggested by the explorer’s encompassing gaze.”18 Jefferys’s illustrations, which asserted this view of European conquest, continued to be used by Ryerson and other publishers for decades after his death in 1951.19

David and Other Poems, title page

Thoreau MacDonald designed books and jackets for Ryerson that were well in advance of most other Canadian publishers.20 MacDonald was not only an illustrator but a talented book designer, and he brought to Ryerson a rigorous and exacting design sensibility that was as clear and honest as his drawings. His illustrations were simple, direct, and easily adapted for book work; the page layouts were well integrated and balanced. His hand lettering was crisp, bold, and surprisingly modern.21 MacDonald’s first project with Ryerson was in 193122 and he worked sporadically alongside Pierce until Pierce’s own retirement in 1960. Pierce was convinced that “[MacDonald] had, along with his father [J.E.H. MacDonald], done more to raise the standard of good book-making in Canada than any other one can think of.”23 As an example, the book created as a tribute to his father, West by East and Other Poems (1933) by J.E.H. MacDonald, with drawings by Thoreau MacDonald, remains a high point of twentieth-century Canadian book production. Other highlights include his design and cover work for poetry during the 1940s, such as Earle Birney’s David and Other Poems (1942).

The Flowing Summer, dust jacket

The 1940s was an extremely difficult decade for Canadian publishers. The Second World War brought labour, materials, and paper shortages, publication delays, declining sales, and overall financial losses. At Ryerson there was a printers’ strike in 1947 and rising production costs curtailed book lists.24 After 1945, when other publishing companies were being renewed with younger leaders (John Morgan Gray at the Macmillan Company of Canada and Jack McClelland at McClelland and Stewart), Pierce was without an heir.25 Yet, Lorne Pierce, an astute bookman, was aware that throughout the Canadian book publishing industry there was every indication of a growing commitment to book design after 1945. As Gray recalled in 1967: “The reaching out for experience and qualifications was the publishing trade’s response to the literary explosion of the late 1940s … Canadian publishers’ awareness of their own deficiencies was reinforced by their dealings with authors who had been published elsewhere. The resulting growth in editorial range and of interest in more sophisticated bookmaking was probably greater between 1945 and 1960 than in the previous fifty years.”26

By the late 1940s, Pierce knew that the look of the book was undergoing a fundamental change. Illustration and hand lettering were being replaced by photography and machine typography; new technologies were changing traditional printing methods in radical ways. Ryerson would have to change in order to remain competitive and profitable. In the summer of 1949, Pierce took a new approach to art direction and book design when he hired a full-time art director, the first book publisher in Canada to do so. Using his local network of art contacts, he hired Arthur Steven (b. 1920), a newly graduated student of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), for the position.27

The Wise Brother, dust jacket

Canada’s first art design department at a book publishing firm was fully operational by the following summer. As a new graduate, Steven faced a steep learning curve. While responsible for all aspects of design and illustration, more effort at first went into book jackets than contents, leaving the text entirely to the staff printers. As a full-time employee his work was largely invisible, as it was Ryerson’s policy not to give credit to full-time staff. He was, however, able to insert a small “S,” “A.S.,” or “STEVEN” onto the occasional dust jacket to make his presence felt. Some of the jackets on which Steven’s worked were Philip Child’s Mr. Ames against Time (1949), William Arthur Deacon’s The 4 Jameses (1953), J.V. McAree’s Cabbagetown Store (1953), Isabelle Hughes’s The Wise Brother (1954), and the map endpapers of Marjorie Freeman Campbell’s Niagara: Hinge of the Golden Arc (1958). The unsigned jacket for Desmond Pacey’s The Picnic and Other Stories (1958) is one of the most attractive Ryerson jackets of the decade and was entirely Steven’s creation, as was the cover for Poetry ’62. One of Steven’s most memorable educational texts, and one he was most proud of, was Winds of Change: A History of Canada and Canadians in the Twentieth Century by Hugh Peart and John Schaffter (1961). Steven executed the design, Vernon Mould (b. 1928)28 the illustrations, and Robert Kunz and Marion Paton the maps. Other memorable educational texts were Philip Penner and Edna Baxter’s Life and Adventures (1962), the Canadian Books of Prose and Verse series (which included P.W. Diebel’s Beckoning Trails of 1962),29 and the Ryerson Readers Series (1966), a five-book set30 that took the art and editorial departments three years to complete.

The McGill Chapbook, front cover

Other designer/illustrators were also at work during these years. Albert Angus Macdonald (1909-1986) completed the design and illustrations for Billy Button’s I Married an Artist (1951); Harold Kurschenska (1931-2003) designed John Robert Colombo’s poetry anthology The Varsity Chapbook (1959) and Leslie L. Kaye’s poetry anthology The McGill Chapbook (1959); and Carl Dair (1912-1967) designed John Coulter’s play Riel (1962). As they were on contract, these designers have their names carefully recorded within the covers or in the text. Other artist/illustrators working for Ryerson included Clare Bice (1909-1976), Winifred Fox (1909-?), Hilton Hassell (1910-1980), Adrian Dingle (1911-1974), Jim Reidford (b. 1911), Lyle Glover (b. 1921), Hans Kleefeld (1929-2016), the brothers John Mardon and Allan Mardon (b. 1931), Tom McNeeley (b. 1935), and Sally Wildman (b. 1939). Also memorable was Norval Morrisseau (b. 1931) working on Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway (1965), for which Steven did the design.31

Twice to Flame, front dust jacket with flap
Twice to Flame, rear dust jacket with flap

John Webster Grant replaced Pierce as Ryerson’s editor when the latter retired in 1960. Steven used the opportunity to hire new art department staff. He needed help with the increasing workload and was notably committed to hiring women artists. His first hire in 1961 was Katherine Berry whose fresh ideas marked a significant change. Two of her book designs were shown at the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada’s Typography ’61 exhibition in Toronto: Edward Cragg’s Mission Unhindered: Studies in the Book of Acts (1961) and Dorothy Roberts’s Twice to Flame (1961). The hot orange and yellow colours of Roberts’s book, its hand-drawn letters and flame drawings against a black background, heralded Ryerson’s new look for poetry.

The Sea Is Also a Garden, dust jacket

In May 1962, Steven hired Pat Gangnon (b. 1937) as an assistant designer. Almost immediately she was set to work on Phyllis Webb’s first book of poetry The Sea Is Also a Garden (1962), a project which included non-representational drawings and marked, according to Ryerson Press editor Earle Toppings,32 “a high point in poetry production at Ryerson.” One of Gangnon’s most interesting designs, and one of the most visually experimental Ryerson texts ever published, was Mass Media in Canada (1962) edited by John A. Irving. Other books designed by Gangnon include T.C.B. Boon’s The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies (1962), William S. Morris’s The Unity We Seek (1962), Phil S. Long’s The Great Canadian Range (1963), Yves Thériault’s Agaguk (1963), and Raymond Souster’s Colour of the Times (1964). Gangnon left Ryerson “with regret” in 1964 and went to work with Sam Smart and Associates, where it would be more of a challenge.

The Story of Canada’s Flag, front cover

Katherine Berry left the firm in spring 1962 and Mary Cserepy was hired as her replacement in June of that year. Immediately, Cserepy began producing dust jackets and designs. One of her early projects was the jacket for Hugh Hood’s Flying a Red Kite (1962). Cserepy ended up working on educational texts, charts, maps, covers for children’s books – whatever was needed at the time. Some of Cserepy’s most important projects at Ryerson included poet Eli Mandel’s Black and Secret Man (1964), George F.G. Stanley’s The Story of Canada’s Flag: A Historical Sketch (1965), Giose Rimanelli and Roberto Ruberto’s edited volume Modern Canadian Stories (1966), and the design of the Ryerson Paperback Series. One of her few credited projects was the paperback edition of Douglas J. Wilson’s The Church Grows in Canada (1966). Cserepy also designed a new colophon for the house.

Cserepy left Ryerson in 1966 for opportunity and challenge at McClelland and Stewart, but after a short time went to work for Clarke, Irwin. Later on, apart from a two-year position in the children’s book division of McClelland and Stewart, she worked largely in freelance design.

The Dangerous Sky: Canadian Airmen in World War II, rear dust jacket
The Dangerous Sky: Canadian Airmen in World War II, front dust jacket

Pat Gangnon’s replacement in 1964 was Bill Taylor, who was skilled both as a designer and an illustrator. Of all the assistants,33 Taylor’s albeit brief career at Ryerson nonetheless lasted the longest. His expertise was full-colour illustration, and he executed a set of full-colour covers for a series of books on careers for young people entitled the Canadian Careers Library, one of which was Nan Shipley’s The Railway Builders (1965). Taylor’s most important work at Ryerson was Tom Coughlin’s The Dangerous Sky: Canadian Airmen in World War II (1968). He took the project from a simple manuscript and expanded it into a fully illustrated book using war photographs.

The late 1960s were difficult years for many Canadian book publishers and Ryerson was not alone in being brought to the brink of financial ruin. Although, according to Steven, the company appeared to be stable, the financial position of the firm began to falter. The press was not run as professionally as it should have been and, by the fall of 1970, Ryerson was $2.8 million in debt. The acquisition of new German-made colour presses, which were essentially not suited to book manufacture, resulted in a huge expenditure and higher than expected operating costs. Their acquisition, in Steven’s mind, brought down the company.34 Steven’s resignation in 1969, triggered by a restructuring proposal that Steven felt would destroy his department, was the end of a design era at Ryerson. The rest of the art department staff left soon afterwards. In December 1970, the American subsidiary McGraw-Hill Company of Canada bought out the Canadian firm and the following year renamed it McGraw-Hill Ryerson.35

Ryerson University Library’s McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collection offers an extraordinary opportunity for students and scholars to examine fifty years of book design and illustration at Ryerson Press. The fact that the book jackets of many titles in the collection have survived is a remarkable boon to researchers of Canada’s publishing and design history.

1 Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) 137, 138.

2 Campbell, Both Hands 163. The purpose-built, five-storey building still stands. Now a designated heritage property, it is located at the corner of Queen and John streets in Toronto and is presently known as Bell Media Queen Street. The Methodist Book and Publishing House issued debentures in 1912 to finance the construction of the building, and it was ready for move-in by 1915. It was built at a cost of $822,000, with foundations strong enough to support an additional five storeys should they be needed in future. See “Two-Million Dollar Printing and Publishing Plant,” Printer and Publisher (February 1916): 19.

3 Campbell, Both Hands 136-37, 151.

4 Campbell, Both Hands 162-63.

5 Sandra Campbell, “Nationalism, Morality, and Gender: Lorne Pierce and the Canadian Literary Canon, 1920-60,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 32.2 (Fall 1994): 142.

6 Pierce himself stated: “[Each manuscript] has to be designed and sometimes illustrated, and promotion discussed with several departments. We want the book to read well, and make sense, and we want it to look professional, for the Editorial Department is jealous of the House imprint, and wants all its books to look as if they came from master craftsmen.” See Lorne Pierce, “Book Publications,” The Book Rumour [Published by the House Committee of The Ryerson Press] 35 (November 1949): 3.

7 W. Stewart Wallace, The Ryerson Imprint: A Check-list of Books and Pamphlets Published by The Ryerson Press since the Foundation of the House in 1829 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1954) 6.

8 Other Toronto publishers were also working with Canadian artists. In May 1920, “McClelland and Stewart hired Donald Graham French (1873-1945) … to manage their new Literary Department. Like other Toronto publishers, M&S published handsome books that employed the services of Group of Seven artists like Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, and their contemporaries like Robert E. Johnston for illustrations, end papers and dust jackets.” See George L. Parker, “The Struggle for Literary Publishing: Three Toronto Publishers Negotiate Separate Contracts for Canadian Authors 1920-1940,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 55.1 (Spring 2017): 11.

9 See Robert Stacey and Hunter Bishop, J.E.H. MacDonald: Designer, An Anthology of Graphic Design, Illustration, and Lettering (Ottawa: Archives of Canadian Art at Carleton UP, 1996) ix.

10 Varley also worked on Marjorie Pickthall: A Book of Remembrance (1925). See Campbell, Both Hands 547, note 44.

11 C.H. Dickinson, Lorne Pierce: A Profile (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1965) 44.

12 William Colgate, C.W. Jefferys (Toronto: Ryerson Press, [1944]) 22.

13 Pierce, “Book Publications” 3.

14 Colgate 22.

15 Campbell, Both Hands 317.

16 Campbell, Both Hands 318.

17 Campbell, Both Hands 323.

18 Campbell, Both Hands 323-24.

19 See also Sandra Campbell’s “From Romantic History to Communications Theory: Lorne Pierce as Publisher of C.W. Jefferys and Harold Innis,” Journal of Canadian Studies 30.3 (1995): 91-116.

20 Wallace 6.

21 Will Novosedlik states that “the use of hand-lettered typography … would characterize Canadian book design for more than 30 years.” He also notes that MacDonald’s “use of contrast and simple forms show him to be far more modern that his predecessors and contemporaries in Canada.” See Will Novosedlik, “Our Modernist Heritage [Part I],” Applied Arts Magazine 11.1 (1996): 31, 32.

22 Thoreau MacDonald’s first illustration work for Ryerson to be recorded in Margaret Edison’s Thoreau MacDonald: A Catalogue of Design and Illustration (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1973) is Blodwen Davies’s Storied York: Toronto Old and New (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1931), “17 drawings and jacket drawing” (Edison 73). MacDonald’s first recorded design work was for Horace D. Ranns’s Careers for Canadians (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1931), “Cover design” (Edison 114).

23 Lorne Pierce, Thoreau MacDonald, Being a Talk on the Artist Given in Hart House, University of Toronto, Upon the Occasion of the Warden’s Exhibition of Drawings for “Maria Chapdelaine,” February 9, 1942 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1942) 3.

24 Campbell, Both Hands 463-64.

25 Campbell, Both Hands 403-04.

26 John Morgan Gray, “Canadian Books: A Publisher’s View,” Canadian Literature 33 (Summer 1967): 31.

27 For a full account of Steven’s career, see Randall Speller, “Arthur Steven at The Ryerson Press: Designing the Post-War Years (1949-1969),” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 41.2 (Fall 2003): 7-44.

28 On 3 October 2001, in a personal interview with the author, former Ryerson Press editor Earle Toppings described Vernon Mould as Ryerson’s new C.W. Jefferys.

29 The first time Steven designed the text was for its 41st printing (1962).

30  The titles produced were: 1. My First Book; 2. On My Way; 3. See Me Go; 4. New Adventures; and 5. Fancy Free. Arthur Steven designed all five books.

31 Legends of My People, edited by Selwyn Dewdney, was first published by Ryerson in 1965 and was reprinted by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1977.

32 Toppings was an editor at Ryerson from 1961 to 1967.

33 Mike Copeland was another designer who worked in the art department some time during the mid-1960s. Copeland stayed about a year and a half and was best remembered by Steven for his sense of humour and ability to liven up the department. The remaining staff lost all trace of Copeland once he left Ryerson.

34 John Webster Grant concurs with this view: “In 1970, mainly through losses incurred in connection with the purchase of an expensive but unsatisfactory colour press, The Ryerson Press was sold to the American firm McGraw-Hill.” See John Webster Grant, “The Ryerson Press,” in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, ed. William Toye (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1983) 722.

35 See George L. Parker, “The Sale of Ryerson Press: The End of the Old Agency System and Conflicts over Domestic and Foreign Ownership in the Canadian Publishing Industry, 1970-1986,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 40.2 (Fall 2002): 7-56. See also Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr, “The Downfall of the Ryerson Press,” PhD dissertation, U of Ottawa, 2014.