It’s easy to view the period from the 1950s to the mid 1970s as a golden age of book illustration and graphic design. Think of all those wonderful Penguin covers, or children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
But it was also an age that saw some truly awful examples of cover art – far worse than anything today.
Here are a few of the shockers I found last week:
This is a relatively minor offender. Some people might even like it as an example of early 1960s design, but I’m not a fan. First, I think it’s a mistake to have three different typefaces. Second, I don’t understand why the tree is far more abstract than the rest of the picture. Third, the boy looks as if he’s suffering from a rather debilitating case of jaundice.
Here’s another gem from the ‘Early Bird’ series:
This looks as if it’s been produced in a particularly backward Warsaw Pact country during the 1950s. Perhaps it was. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been as a present.
Peter and the Picture Thief might be a cracking story, but the cover is as exciting as a school trip to a brass rubbing centre.
This follows a similar, penny-piching approach by only employing three colours. As an illustration, it’s more accomplished, but the once again, the overall effect of the cover has that grim, Eastern Bloc feel about it, as if colour was somehow too decadent and bourgeois.
This cover has the virtue of being in full colour, but features three children vomitting and writhing in agony while a giant rabbit looks on, passively. As a child, I would have preferred this cover to the other three, although I wasn’t keen on animal stories.
Moving on to books for adults:
I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect too much from a publisher called Budget Books, but this is a particularly cheap and nasty cover. Even the title length appears to have been subject to budgetry constraints. And what sort of a name is Rice Cordell?
This is the tenth novel in Vardis Fisher’s ‘Testament of Man’ series and the cover features a man in a loincloth running away from a brazen hussy. At least, that’s what it looks like. It’s better than many covers of the time, but the illustration is a bit slapdash.
This almost works, but the addition of a giant woman’s head looks rather odd. I can see that the artist is trying to convey David’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but a more subtle illustration and a decent blurb on the back would have sufficed.
This cover features a strange blend of colour and monochrome people, for no discernible reason. At first, I thought the woman was standing in front of a screen showing a black and white film, but no, they’re all in the same room. It’s very odd.
Hank Janson is also a strange case. A celebrated author of American pulp fiction, he was actually a work of fiction himself, created by an unassuming Englishman called Stephen Daniel Frances.
Several people wrote as Hank Janson and the titles include the following gems:
- Baby, Don’t Squeal
- A Nympho Named Silvia
- Skirts Bring Me Sorrow
- Jazz Jungle
- Hotsy, You’ll Be Chilled
- Wild Girl
- Vagabond Vamp
- Beauty and the Beat
- Visit From a Broad
- This Dame Dies Soon
Finally, my favourite:
I have no idea what the groom is keeping in his pyjama pocket, but he has the countenance of a man walking to the scaffold. Perhaps he’s learned that the bride’s breasts are the product of gender reassignment surgery and that she used to be called Kenneth. She certainly has a knowing expression.
That concludes this selection. I’m sure there will be more to come.
I recently found a batch of photographs from the 1950s, all of which feature theatrical performances. There’s very little information on the backs, but I’m almost certain that they show the work of an amateur dramatics group rather than a professional one.
The clues are as follows:
- The photos were processed in the dreary London suburbs of Cheam and New Malden
- There’s quite a lot of over overacting
- The pictures look like the work of an enthusiastic amateur; many were very blurry
But I may be wrong. You decide:
This photo was printed by Cole Studios (which is still going) in New Malden – a rather drab place between Kingston-upon-Thames and Raynes Park. It now has a large Korean community, for no discernible reason (unless it reminds them of North Korea).
The set looks quite spartan, but that isn’t the case in the next picture:
This is clearly a very emotional point in the play and everyone seems to be weeping. Perhaps this is in response to an earlier scene, in which things get rather heated:
This is a little bit racy for 1950s am-dram. I don’t know what play it is, but it clearly isn’t ‘Charlie’s Aunt’. I think it was very brave of Miss Perkins in Accounts to agree to strip down to her underwear, but perhaps it was even more courageous of Brenda to wear those awful pyjamas.
In the end, everything is resolved amicably. It turns out that Miss Perkins was simply modelling for an artist and the murder weapon was a telephone directory for New Malden and Cheam. Brenda is the murdereress and she switched to the terrible pyjamas because her dress had blood on it.
It is commendable that this company were prepared to tackle gritty dramas rather than just stick to the old favourites:
Here we see a ‘kitchen sink’ drama, as evidenced by a kitchen sink and a packet of Fairy Snow. I presume that this is a challenging drama about race, as one of the cast appears to have ‘blacked-up’. I also see that the woman is wearing hair rollers to indicate that she is working class.
This is from ‘Twelfth Night’. Today we would probably say that this was part of an ‘outreach programme’ that sought to ‘create links with the local community’ or even ‘communities’. In the 1950s, they just did an open air performance and hoped that it didn’t rain.
This is from a production of ‘Call Me Madam’. I find the rictus grin of the man in the middle slightly offputting.
I have no idea what this play is, but I don’t think it’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
However, this is:
In this production, the weeping middle-aged man at the piano has been transformed into a sprightly young buck. I wonder if a stripey blazer would do the same for me?
I’m struck by how much hard work must have gone into the stage set and the costumes. I never used to notice these things until I met my wife’s family, who worked in the theatrical world. Her father was the lighting designer for the London Coliseum, but although he was highly regarded by his peers, his work was rarely mentioned in reviews.
Since then, I’ve always taken more interest in the details.
Once again, I have no idea what this is. I can only tell you that it isn’t ‘Look Back in Anger’.
And now, the show is over and it’s time to take a curtain call: