Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Art of Penguin

Harland Miller in situ via Dustjacket

And Again

I wonder if Allen Lane the gentleman who's brainwave created the Penguin book or Edward Preston Young the young man who was sent to London Zoo to sketch Penguins and subsequently devise the now iconic colour schemes that went onto the early book covers had any idea what they had unleashed. I think they would probably be surprised and flattered to see that today those designs and indeed the Penguin book brand has now reached cult status and continues to inspire artists and designers as well as readers and writers. The spirit of Penguin remains true, they still publish wonderful books and release quality, covetable, special editions and box sets designed beautifully with thought and attention.

Sir Allen Lane

In 1935, if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card. Cheap paperbacks were available, but their poor production generally tended to mirror the quality between the covers.

Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin and another employee was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. Seventy years later Penguin is still one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun.

Text and quotes in italics from the Penguin Website

"We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it"
Allen Lane

Edward Preston Young (Right)

"The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense would combine against them and suppress them"
George Orwell

Dear Lane,
These Penguin Books are amazingly good value for money. If you can make the series pay for itself - with such books at such price - you will have performed a great publishing feat. Yours sincerely,
J. B. Priestley

"If a book is any good, the cheaper the better"
Bernard Shaw

"A Penguin could fit into a soldiers pocket or his kit bag ... it was especially prized in prison camps"
Martin Bell

Image via here

Great Food Series Coralie Bickford-Smith

Penguin Cloth Hardcover Classics Coralie Bickford-Smith

Glamourous art deco inspired jackets Coralie Bickford-Smith

The Nancy Mitford Collection

The Boys Adventure Series Coralie Bickford-Smith

Puffin Childrens Hardbacked Classics

Daniela Jaglena Terrazzini

The First 10 books published, the originals are almost impossible to get hold of these are reproductions

Harland Miller, Painting hanging in Soho House LA


  1. I'm a real fan of Penguins and thr Penguin logo / history. A great post, thank you.

  2. Hello Dash

    You have educated me with this fascinating and interesting post. I had not known the history of Penguin.

    I choked on my cappucine when I read the last image.

    Thanks for this informative post

    Helen xx

  3. Apologies for the language on the last image!

  4. So the secretary thought of a penguin! As simple as that. And one of the reasons I collect old copies of them (in my favourite hunting grounds of second hand bookshops), is because they are a surefire good read. I have discovered many new-to-me authors by trusting that they have to be readable (or better) just because they made it into penguin print.

    Fascinating history!

  5. I love that last pic!!!....says it all!...and I grew up with Penguin books and devoured them. As a gallery owner my husband declared I could sell anything the day I sold a spoon with a penguin painted on it....penguins are just appealing and somewhat dignified with their topcoats I have a great penguin whirlygig!

  6. who would have thought..the humble penguin book! I'd love to have one of the artworks.

  7. A fantastic post, as always, Dash. I have long been a fan of Penguin books--and still kick myself for not investing in the hardcover classics when they were for some reason on promotion many years ago in NYC. And as Virginia mentioned, it is a guarantee of great authors not just a great price. When I bought Jane Eyre again recently, it was a no brainer which version I would buy--Penguin!

  8. I've been followed by penguins lately. I mean, their images and likeness... not real penguins, obviously. There were several penguin sculptures and a set of penguin salt and pepper shakers in my favorite antique store this week. And now, this. Curious! Verrrrry curious!


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