Colin Larkin’s fascination with book art began when he was eight or nine years old. He remembers two Leslie Charteris Saint titles knocking about the house; the covers intrigued him, but as to might expect at that age he decided they were boring to read. By the time he was ten, 1960, Larkin was buying his own books based on his attraction to the art work. Larkin found Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, on a local market stall, it was illustrated by HL Fox. Even now it’s a striking image of a hovering skull, brooding weather, a creaking mansion and a spooky lone tree; that image lasted through several editions. Larkin’s brother was a commercial artist and in 1961 he drew Colin for the cover of In the Dead of the Night, a horror anthology edited by Michael Sissons.
Colin Larkin became an insatiable reader and a book collector, picking up, often well worn, second hand titles where ever possible. He became a commercial artist and later worked with his brother and, through him, with one of the giants of commercial illustration, Ralph Vernon-Hunt. Larkin eventually becoming a book publisher in his own right. In 1990 he managed to acquire much of the remaining/surviving original art works from the Pan golden years – 1947-1965. The collection was considered a fire hazard and it was gathering dust in a warehouse, the dreaded skip loomed. Larkin bought 620 works, including 7 original gouache James Bond cover paintings and several Agatha Christie’s. A year later Larkin was forced to sell some of the collection for financial reasons, including the James Bonds at Bonham’s, (now est. value £10,000 a piece), the illustrators for the Bond were; Roger Hall, Josh Kirby, Rex A and Peff. There was controversy around the sale as some of the original artists, realising their work had value, came forward. Larkin says Pan had previously tried to contact them before he was able to buy the job lot.
By 1965 there had been 2,000 original art works done for Pan, 160+ by Sam Peffer (Peff). The collection sat around for a long time uncatalogued but with a view to the production of this book in 2003 Larkin finally went through the individual pieces. He realised that sixty had been stolen, they were recovered after a long civil action.
This book celebrates the fifty or so artists and the 600+ works in Larkin’s collection. The illustrators were not perceived as top artists at the time of working, something Larkin would contest. These were seen as commercial illustrations not fine art but this is something that has been re-evaluated since. A brief survey of the book will convince any reader of the quality of the work. These are important documents of their time, images that adorn covers that Larkin says span the cosy post war leisure period while absorb something of American eroticism and dynamism and yet remained distinctly British. It’s clear from comparison that the British Pan covers had boundaries the American equivalents do not adhere to.
This is a fascinating social history for its reflection on British tastes of the time and as a documented history of the Pan paperback publishing revolution. It’s a labour of love for Larkin and his enthusiasm is catching. There are brief passages on the history of the paperback and reading which set the scene, they are light, referring to reading and social background, the cheapness of the new paperback and the development of WHSmith and the Penguin empire. Alan Bott launched Pan in 1947, one of the ideas of the new endeavour was to get away from the ‘turgid’ images of the hardback. At an early board meeting they actually bought a boat to transport finished books into Britain, paper was scarce/rationed after WWII. Pan began with ten popular titles by established authors including; Priestly, Christie, Hilton, Buchan, Kipling. Although in many minds Pan might be associated with commercial fiction they published high brow and non-fiction titles, by 1952 Pan was firmly established as an imprint.
There are many representations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot by different artists for each new edition such as John Keay, who did The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1959. A personal favourite is Roger Hall’s likeness of Rhys Williams for the Belgian detective, Williams was a Welsh Hollywood character actor who never played the part but was clearly, in my opinion, Halls idea of Poirot. The first Pan Charteris novels mimicked the earlier Hodder edition with a distinctive yellow cover but they went on to illustrate in their own inimitable way. Although The Saint Goes West, 1955 by Sax imagines the hero to look a lot like popular actor Montgomery Clift, which is slightly bizarre.
Pan published the pulps, Gangster Digest imports from America with sexy/exploitative images, made slightly more chased by the British artists for the local editions. There was a push to move away from the artists of the 1940s to 1950, a perceived conservatism epitomised by artists such as JH Bruce and Edward Bawden for later publications. Pan wanted more flamboyance, colour and a risqué feel through the 50s and on. Although I think Bruce’s 1949 cover for The Thirty Nine Steps; a man jumping from a train, which hints at comic, graphic, art, is one of my favourite images. Larkin comments:
“The pulp fiction book was essentially a marketing exercise in selling books by exploiting the female. The brylcreemed, chiselled-featured male of their cover art was nowhere near as visually powerful as the sexy and carelessly-dressed female. The underground publishers were blatant, with Hank Janson novels leading the pack, but pan adopted a refined version of the same tactic, because they felt the mainstream, law-abiding public would tolerate their pulp-lite versions.”
Each artist gets a brief career summary backed up by plenty of illustrations of their work, readers can assess their individual styles and the changes over time. Included are the by names of the era; Rex Archer, Hans Helwig, de Marco, J Oval, Pat Owen, Peff, Bip Pares, Val Biro and Reginald Cyril Webb Heade, (known as Cy Webb and Heade). Covers for everything from Eric Ambler, Simenon and Creasy, (Marric – Gideon of the Yard novels), to Georgette Heyer, sci-fi titles, westerns and classics.
Larkins has his favourite:
“…the subtle eroticism of Solomon’s Vineyard (1961) helps to make it Peff’s finest ever cover.”
I have to agree, this cover for Jonathan Latimer’s novel with hoods in the background and the antihero on the floor looking up at pair of nylons is superbly drawn and highly evocative. Where the film of the book exists the images from cinema and the actors dominate the illustration: Stanley Baker, Diana Dors, Peter Cushing, Sid James, Audie Murphy, Jack Hawkins among them.
How close the artists’ images are to the content/spirit of the work is a point for debate but that’s a side issue, not Larkin’s concern, this is not a literary appraisal. Larkin wants to share his love for Pan book art, he certainly achieves that. This is an entertaining and beautifully illustrated survey of book covers from a bygone era. A coffee table book that will have readers diving back in every once in a while.
Review by Paul Burke
Personal read 4*, not a group read.
Telos, Hardback, ISBN 9781845839888, out now