Books come in a wide range of categories or genres covering everything from the timeless classic of literature to the latest ‘blockbuster’. The main job of the book jacket is to seduce you into picking up the book and communicate a strong flavour of its contents.
The Honey Badger appears here as it was seen in bookshops complete with the giant size title lettering generally reserved for the covers of bestsellers. Dark Image is basically a lettering experiment rather than an actual cover design. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland displays my artwork before the publisher has added the book’s title, the author’s name etc. The Italian peasant girl, the city man helping a blond out of an E-type Jaguar and the floating Tibetan head, all appear prior to the addition of their titles, likewise The Naked Soldier, Creeps by Night, Madness at the Castle, Monte Walsh etc.
I produced cover art for every conceivable category of book: biographies, romances, thrillers, war epics and westerns as well as ghost stories and the wilder shores of science fiction and fantasy. I found the sheer variety of it all exhilarating.
David Larkin of Panther Books was the most resourceful and imaginative of the many art directors I worked with. Between us, we came up with a design format for classic books dealing with epic themes. Typically, this consisted of figures advancing in procession from the back of the book, across the spine and onto the front, a format ideal not only for Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales trotting along together, but also Homer’s mythic heroes in The Odyssey, charging from one adventure to the next. I often stylised figures to give them greater intensity, an approach that seemed to work equally well with a number of small scale, lyrical subjects such as Turgenyev’s First Love.
Cover for a variety of other classic books followed such as The Satires of Juvenal, The Book of 1001 Nights, and Beowulf. For a trio of historical novels by Alfred Duggan, Founding Fathers, Three’s Company and Lord Geoffrey’s Fancy we devised a more condensed version of the processional frieze. For Black Heroes in World History we presented a grand parade of inspirational figures, led by the legendary Queen of Sheba.
The jacket design I most enjoyed working on was the heroic epic Beowulf. Seeking to evoke a distant Anglo Saxon past, I created an artefact that seemed to be carved from ancient ivory, encrusted with pearls and semi precious stones. Beowulf and his followers are depicted disembarking from their long ship to do battle with a trio of monsters: Grendel, Grendel’s terrifying mother and a formidable, fire-breathing dragon.
For The Wreckage of Agathon, a modern novel by John Gardner, I conjured up another artefact, this time apparently hewn out of a block of red sandstone. This depicted the drunken Greek philosopher Agathon, his young apprentice at his side. To symbolise Agathon’s moral and physical deterioration, I split the stone he was set in from top to bottom, then snapped off one of his fingers.
I used the processional idea for the last time on two books of Fairy Tales and Legends by Barbara Sleigh; North of Nowhere and Spin Straw to Gold. These were my tribute to the work of Edmund Dulac, one of the most accomplished and magical illustrators of all time.
By the 1980’s I was painting full time so no longer undertaking commissions for book jacket designs. However, several authors sought permission to use various paintings and drawings of mine as cover art for their books. Larry Kramer picked Changing Head for his controversial novel Faggots, Gavin Ewart chose Female Bather on Gold for his Penultimate Poems, and Neil Powell used a detail from Afternoon of the Kites for his Selected Poems. Francis King featured tonal nude drawings of mine on the dust jackets of two of his novels, Punishments and The One and Only.
When Simon and Schuster, the New York publishers, asked if they could use my drawing Vanitas as cover art for a novel of that name by Joseph Olshan, I was happy to oblige. At the time though, I was unaware that it was the very drawing that Olshan’s novel was about ! He had fallen in love with my Vanitas after coming across it in an apartment in New York then created a haunting back story for it every bit as powerful as the drawing’s real life story !
My painting Profile with Cats: Lincoln Kirstein features on the dust jacket of Martin Duberman’s biography of the great man, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. Lincoln had been my friend as well as my patron, so I was delighted to be a part of Duberman’s wonderful book about him.