30 Oct, 2009

Penguin by Illustrators: David Gentleman

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

In our second extract from Penguin by Illustrators, a new book of talks given by esteemed Penguin creatives, we have the text of the presentation made by David Gentleman, best known for his detailed engraving, lithograph and watercolour work…

The following is the introductory text to and transcript of the presentation Gentleman gave at the Penguin Collectors’ Society event, Penguin by Illustrators in 2007, which has now been published in a new book of the same name. Further details on Penguin by Illustrators follow the extract.

David Gentleman has travelled widely and has written and illustrated books on Britain, London, Paris, India, Italy and Anglo-American relations. He has designed British postage stamps and a platform-length mural on the London Underground. There have been many exhibitions of his landscape watercolours and architectural lithographs; his posters have been carried on marches protesting against the wars in Iraq and Gaza.

David Gentleman

I was still at the Royal College of Art when Hans Schmoller came to lunch there one day, bringing John Curtis, his new young assistant only recently down from Cambridge. It was the beginning of a connection with John that lasted for around fifty years. This engraving of a mountain hut was the first thing I did for Penguin, and one of the first jobs that I was ever paid for by anybody.


I’d done some wood engraving as a student and it’s a pretty ancient craft – the technique of printing off a raised surface was virtually unchanged since five hundred years ago when Gutenberg and Caxton began. So it’s indicative of the changes that have happened during one’s lifetime – it’s fifty years since I did it, letterpress was still then the normal way to print; now we’re in a different world.

This engraving was for one of the Penguin Classics. I was brand new on the scene then and I was lucky to get the commission. I liked the simple, rather austere, layout – it had first been designed by Jan Tschichold, and Hans Schmoller had either retained the design unchanged or maybe this was already something that he had had his own finger in. It was good to be offered such a job. I read the stories quickly, did a rough in my digs in Battersea at the time and posted it back to Schmoller or John Curtis at Penguin. They sent it back more or less instantly and I engraved it the next weekend and thought that if it would only go on this would be a congenial way to earn a living. And it did go on for quite a while with Penguin.

I did another engraving for the Perrault Fairy Tales, 1957 in Penguin Classics, and four more for The Music Masters under the Pelican imprint. The twentieth-century engraving was an unusual one for me. It was the fourth in a series of dictionaries of music and musicians for which I tried to make engravings that would relate to each of the centuries.

I wouldn’t use the word pastiche but they were certainly meant to evoke the period that each book was about. It was done in the Fifties when the twentieth century was still in full swing, and with its Thirties echoes it’s one of the few designs I’ve done that consciously set out to be even vaguely contemporary. Wines and Spirits was also a wood engraving and survived in many versions through a number of redesigns of the series grid.

First Penguin job

The first big job that I ever did for Penguin was the cookery book Plats du Jour, again in the mid Fifties. Copies of it still survive, battered, weather-beaten and olive oil-stained, because it was a much-used cookbook and it remained on everybody’s kitchen shelves for a long time. It sold – because of Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd’s text – astonishingly well; it really outsold Elizabeth David who was already in the process of becoming a heavyweight herself, and it was a delightful task. I’d had a travelling scholarship from the Royal College, which had taken me widely over France and Italy, and the ideas came from what I’d seen on that journey. The front cover was of a French family beginning their meal; when you turn it over, you see the table at the end of the meal, with the cats sitting among the debris. There’s a Penguin on the cover but no Penguin grid – in this respect, it may have been a first.

EM Forster covers

The cover for A Room With a View was a drawing done on that same Italian trip; that’s the Ponte Vecchio in Florence in the background. At first the little penguin appeared on its orange panel at the bottom of each cover which I feel makes it look a bit of a muddle – the orange meant an extra colour and the drawing already has a lot of different things to fit in amongst. This was something that I learned to live with later on, with stamps; but here it was already something that I didn’t particularly want, asserting itself at the bottom right of the book. When individual titles were reprinted a year or two later, the series grid had been cleaned up a bit, without the orange, which I think was a small but important change that made it simply look right. One could hardly imagine a simpler or a more logical way to make a drawing work alongside typesetting and strips of grey, and the beautiful black and white penguin was up there now on the top left.

I was glad to get these Forsters to do. There were half a dozen of them and I loved the books anyway – it was a great break. When I did A Passage to India I’d never been there, and I certainly I didn’t know anything about Edwardian life: somebody, Hans Schmoller or John Curtis must have taken quite a risk in getting me to do the series. Even now, when they look to me almost like someone else’s work, I still quite like them as drawings.

The Forsters were all done with a ruling pen on blotting paper, which made one work quickly and definitely to avoid it getting blobby: one had to get it right first time or start again. But other covers like Galsworthy’s In Chancery and Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension, which was in two colours, I used an early felt-tip pen called a Flo-master. It smelt of petrol but produced tints from pale grey to a rich black, depending on how hard you pressed it.

South Wind was a redrawing of a watercolour subject I’d made in an Italian hotel window in the small beach town of Cirella di Diamonte, south of Naples. The Horse’s Mouth was drawn quite quickly one evening looking across the river from Cheyne Walk.

But for War in Val d’Orcia and the endpapers for Private Angelo I drew with ordinary fountain pens. The final Forster, Aspects of the Novel in Pelican, was in a different vein entirely, using big hand-drawn letters.

Germano Facetti

I remember the Penguin party for the arrival in January 1961 of Germano Facetti, an energetic, charismatic and romantic-looking Italian with an aquiline profile, who transformed Penguin’s appearance. It must have been Germano who in 1962 commissioned me to do four Paul Gallico covers, Mrs Harris goes to New York, Flowers for Mrs Harris, Love of Seven Dolls, and Jennie. I’m not keen on these covers now, and don’t think I was a good choice for them. But Germano became a near neighbour and friend, and we remained remained in touch even after he left Penguin for Mondadori and eventually retired to Liguria.

CP Snow covers

The last jobs I can remember doing for Penguin were two complete sets of covers, for CP Snow and for Shakespeare. A single sheet with miniature sketches of the Snows survives, so I must have tackled them as a single job lot. Like the EM Forsters, they were drawn on blotting paper, but this time quite tiny – half-size or less – so they could gain extra vigour and blackness when blown up. I didn’t much enjoy reading the Snows and would stop as soon as I reached a passage suggesting a suitable building or landscape for a cover.

The first sketches for Corridors of Power, which were not used, showed an imaginary corridor in Whitehall, not unlike the real Foreign Office interiors the FCO commissioned me to draw many years later. Last Things (not on blotting paper) took as its subject a real pub somewhere in Pimlico. The first Snow illustrations were printed against a Penguin orange background, with the title and author in white. Later editions used a white background with the author’s name in black type, and just the title in orange.

Shakespeare covers

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 CP 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.

This is an extract from Penguin by Illustrators, edited by Steve Hare and published by the Penguin Collectors’ Society. The book is currently available to purchase from the PBS website, (£20 plus p&p). As a compendium of the Penguin by Illustrators event in 2007, the book features the five presentations by Dennis Bailey, Romek Marber, Jan Pieńkowski, Tony Lyons and Jon Gray, and is supplemented by an introduction by Phil Baines and two further chapters by Quentin Blake and David Gentleman.

The book covers virtually the entire period from Penguin’s tentative, and then formal abandonment of purely typographic covers in the mid 1950s, right up until the present time. It is designed by Ipek Altunmaral, a final-year student at Central Saint Martins, and has a cover designed by David Pearson.

More of Gentleman’s artworks can also be seen on the Tate gallery website.


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