Run by Richard Embray and Elinor Jansz, Four Corners Books is a London-based publishing house that seeks to bring art history to life. They explore unfamiliar histories of visual culture, sharing the stories that capture their own attention in order to grab ours. We caught up with the pair to find out what they think we should all be reading.
“We both studied Art History at university and met there, but Four Corners started quite a few years later. It came out of a desire that we both had for a much broader, engaging approach to art history than we had experienced when we were being educated. We always had this interest and desire to do projects that engage with more subjects. Initially it was very sporadic. We did one book together, because Elena knew someone who was working on a book that really fit with our interests. We did that book, and it did well, and we thought, let’s do another, then let’s do another one. It wasn’t really until four or five years later, maybe more than that, that we realized we were really doing it — we were just doing a book. We were doing other things full-time at the start. We wanted to create things that we felt were missing from the art publishing scene at the time, that we felt were really kind of interesting and important.
“The main theme that we have is interrogating the past. With the Irregulars, we’re often putting a lot of care and effort into presenting aspects of visual culture that haven’t had due attention so far, and making a case for their importance or value — trying to bring it into our understanding of our history. With the Familiars, we’re coming at it from the other angle, taking a very familiar text and then asking artists to kind of interrogate the received wisdom around that story — to prod it and poke it and treat it with less reverence, or bring out kind of under reported kind of aspect of that story. It’s all about digging into the history and the wider context of the novel. More generally, what we do is look back at our histories and try to find new ways to look at it and think about it and to rethink what we valorized about our past and try and widen that question.
“Our books are always historical projects. We’re always trying to think of what projects, or ways of doing them, would be relevant now. The other thing is, a lot of art publishing is obviously linked to galleries or museum institutions, but we’ve never done catalogs or anything like that. We’re always looking for projects where it’s going to work as a book in its own right. The book has to be the main events, and that leads us to use these traditional publisher ideas, like illustrated novels, while trying to do something new and playful with that. We’ve done a lot of books, posters and works on paper that perhaps come out of that. I’m really just always looking for visual collections that we are excited to share. Also, personally speaking, I really like books as a way of experiencing art.
“Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, with art by Shiraz Bayjoo, is our most recent one, and we’re really excited that this has had a great, really engaged response from readers. Bayjoo spent such a long time gathering archival material and creating new work that situates this classic novel within the colonial histories of its setting. The designer John Morgan did such a great job as well. We’re really pleased as people are responding to it, kind of old. One of the very early books we did was on Sister Mary Corita Kent, and that was a big hit for us. She was an artist who hadn’t been properly given her dues. It’s really exciting when you really love some work that you think hasn’t been seen widely, and then you provide the means for people to engage with it, and they really do.” — RE
Book that experiments with the format of a book: Footnotes and Headlines by Sister Mary Corita Kent
Sister Mary Corita Kent was someone who said she was viewed as a sort of Pop Art artist, but very much on the edge of that genre. I think, looking more into her work, there are a number of different reasons for that, but when I started to find out about her, I saw that she was an artist, but she was also an educator. She was just interested in so many different things, and she didn’t restrict herself to one field of work. In Footnotes and Headlines, she does this thing that she does with the screen prints, where she’s using language and words and advertising slogans in a very sort of playful way, where she uses them as much for their visual impact as for the message that’s being communicated. Very often the message that’s being communicated is where she’s actually subverting the original meaning, or finding a message in it that isn’t intended. I really liked the way that the page is treated in this, everything has shaken up, the letters are squashed, cut up, and slide off the page. But also, I think it really does stop you reading it in a linear way, and makes you think about the act of engaging with these ideas. — EJ
Book from history you wish was a Four Corners Books book: The Clown Egg Register by Luke Stephenson and Helen Champion
This book isn’t that old, but it’s like, definitely one that we wish was a Four Corners book. It’s called The Clown Egg Register. And it’s by a photographer called Luke Stephenson. It’s a record of a really fascinating archive that he documented. The idea was that every clown has their own very distinctive makeup, and then the design of the make-up is registered by marking up an egg. The face is on the egg and then all these clown face designs are stored in The Clown Egg Register. Each reference design is sort of trademarked and can be referred to. I mean, it’s an almost too good to be true archive and it’s an amazing thing that exists. That’s a book where you think, oh, what a great archive, and what a great sort of thing to have documented. — RE
Favorite recently-released book: Women’s Work: From feminine arts to feminist art by Ferren Gipson
This is a book that presents and celebrates a range of different artists working with textiles, ceramics and quilting, and doing extraordinary things with them. I think that Ferren was really making a case for how fascinating and inspiring this work is it and looking at how these are materials that have been kind of traditionally relegated to a field of craft, or domestic or feminine art, and are therefore not part of the main story, and presented as less important or less interesting. I think that the book makes a case for exactly why this isn’t true and doesn’t make any sense. I think that really resonates because that’s definitely the way that, when we studied art history, the hierarchy was in place in terms of what art forms should be studied. — EJ
Favorite book from your personal library: Usylessly by John Morgan
This is a book that John Morgan designed, and we’ve we’ve worked with John a lot. He’s a brilliant designer, he’s done all of the Familiar series, for example, and he’s great for that series because he really engages with publication histories and design histories. Usylessly is basically a recreation of the original first edition of Ulysses, which was a very beautiful, large format and somewhat fragile paperback. He’s done this beautiful recreation of the format, but it’s mostly blank — he doesn’t include the novel. He includes two texts about the history of the publication and its packaging and kind of the covers that it’s had over the years, but it’s really this kind of beautifully made object. He put so much care into the production and every kind of little aspect of it. — RE
Favorite ‘experimental trade paperback’: Ask The Sea by Peter Iain Campbell, Home Is Where The Artist Lives by Laura Moseley, How Grey Was My Valley by Peter Halliday
I’ve grouped three together here. Something we’ve seen in the past few years is that people have started doing very high quality zines. With digital printing and the internet, there’s this burgeoning, quite well established, sector of zines that are really just small books. These publishers are doing really interesting things. The first one is called Ask The Sea, by Peter Iain Campbell, and the publisher is called Another Place. They do traditional books as well, but they’ve done this quite long series now of photography magazines about different places and people’s relationship with those places, and this is a really beautiful one about oil rigs. There’s another publisher called Common Threads Press who produced Home Is Where The Artist Lives by Laura Moseley. It’s 32 pages and it’s about different female artists and how they create work that relates to where they live, or ideas of home. The third publisher is called The Modernists, and they’re very prolific. Their book How Grey Was My Valley is about modernist architecture in Wales, with really, really nice photographs. — RE