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Fine Books Excerpt

Classic and Classy Penguins

I can’t remember who was Penguin’s art director for the Snow series at the time—maybe there were several, each with a different fiefdom. Maybe it was David Pelham. It was certainly Hans Schmoller who offered me the New Penguin Shakespeares, for he seemed a bit miffed with whoever it was had given me this task when I was supposed to be concentrating on the early Shakespeares. At any rate, I’m afraid, I banged the Snows off and got down to the much longer and more laborious—but also more demanding and important Shakespeares.

The four engraved Shakespeare stamps I’d done for the Post Office a few years earlier may have helped me to get the Penguin job. Again I used the solid and chunky character of wood engravings to unify this much longer and disparate series. Hans Schmoller’s brief was that the covers should be in colour and that they should reflect the overall theme and feeling of each play, but not look like a recommendation as to how it might be staged. I started with The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, and continued through all the histories, battles, comedies, and all but one of the tragedies, and a fair whack of shipwrecks: The Tempest, Pericles, and Antony and Cleopatra, even though the battle of Actium happens offstage. I treated each cover as a small colour print, using flat printings in self-colours instead of three-colour process. I was often quite anxious about the colours, which generally needed a second proof to get them right. Richard Hildesley, Design Manager in the Seventies would bring the proofs to the studio and we’d agree on the colour changes needed.

As the series went on, I often engraved the designs smaller than finished size and then enlarged the proofs, like the C.P. Snow drawings, for greater carrying power. (A year or two later I did the same, though using a much greater enlargement, with the engravings for the Charing Cross underground station mural).

The designs were done over about ten years as plays came up for reprinting. Altogether, Shakespeare was a long haul, but though the intervals between deadlines grew longer, I always took the series’ eventual completion for granted. In the end, it never quite made it—there was no Hamlet or Sonnets—and one day I was a bit surprised to notice in a bookshop that another artists had taken the series over. It was salutary to be reminded that nothing lasts for ever. But I’m glad that my long involvement with Penguin effectively ended with such a worthwhile task, and that a generation of schoolchildren would have seen one or other of my covers. My last Penguin cover was for a wonderful book, In Camden Town, by my neighbour and friend, David Thomson.

Penguin By Illustrators is published by the Penguin Collectors Society. It is available at the PCS website for £20 plus postage.

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