The Penguin Print Series

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The boom in interwar printmaking in Britain was immense, it followed the same popularity of books; naturally the process of colour printing and printmaking where not so dissimilar. People were owning their own homes and they wanted affordable art to put inside.

In the 1920s and 1930s you could either source prints from the Studio Magazine or companies like the Medici print company but then came a series of print publishers who were issuing prints by contemporary artists, not from the past. The first major series of lithographs of modern artists for the public to buy would have been the Contemporary Lithograph series of prints. It was them who started the ball rolling in 1937 and proving that large colour reproduction prints could be made and sold cheaply. Sadly it, like all of the others I will list, were not a financial success. The early print schemes had aspirations of making art more affordable for people. The AIA series was a source of fund-raising for the group and showed off art from their members. The Schools Print series would have likely worked out if it wasn’t for the difficult third series from European artists. But with Lyons Lithographs the public may have felt a little saturated.

Lyons and Guinness both used the idea to their advantage when they needed to brighten up their shabby looking teahouses and pubs in an era of post war austerity.

  • Contemporary Lithographs Ltd – 1937-38
  • AIA Everyman Prints – 1939 – 1942
  • Schools Prints – 1945 – 1949
  • Festival of Britain Print Series – 1951
  • Coronation Print Series – 1953
  • Lyons Lithographs – 1947 and 1955 
  • Guinness Lithographs – 1956 – 1957 

The Penguin series was unusual in that all the prints where old and not designed to be prints for the scheme. It is why they are auto lithographs. The choice of the works were down to Kenneth Clark and it is a curious selection of traditional art and abstract works. The only work I really question is Pieter de Hooch – Courtyard in Delft at Evening- a Woman Spinning, 1656. It is not a picture I can think would hang easily anywhere.

The prints were presented in folders with a size of 13¼” x 17″. Each folder also contained information on the artist and the painting/work of art.

Only 11 prints were produced before Penguin ended the scheme. The first Print was by Turner and appeared in December 1948. The last print was published in April 1952. Below are the works from this long forgotten scheme.

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 J. M. W. Turner – Yacht Approaching Coast, 1840

Turner painted this view c1840-5 and it was published by Penguin in December 1948. PR1.

In this painting the light in the sky and on the sea dazzles the viewer, obscuring the scene. This visual effect echoes the progress of Turner’s own work on the painting as he returned to areas of the canvas over a period of several years, covering the original subject. Dark shapes that appear through the layers suggest boats, while the buildings on the left have not been definitively identified but may represent Venice. By reworking the canvas, Turner has created less tangible subjects – those of light and colour themselves.

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 Paul Klee – Landscape with Yellow Birds, 1923

It was published by Penguin in December 1948  PR2

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 John Piper – View of Windsor Castle, 1940

The John Piper painting was originally made in 1940-41. It was published in 1948. PR3. A blog post about his work at Windsor can be found here.

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 Pablo Picasso – Le Chardonneret, 1936

This print is from Picasso’s series of illustrations for Buffon’s Natural History. The drawings were made in 1936, and that book was published in 1942. The Penguin print is from December 1948. PR4

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 Paul Klee – Ad Marginem, 1930

Ad Marginem was painted in 1930. It was published by Penguin in May 1951.

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 Amedeo Modigliani – Le Petit Paysan, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani – Le Petit Paysan was published as a Penguin Print in 1950.

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 Henry Moore – Family Group, 1944

This work from 1944 looks at Henry Moore’s work earlier in the Second World War of Shelter Drawings, it is visually similar to those drawings and a sculpture he made on the theme. Towards the end of the war Moore made many drawings and sculptures of the family group.

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 Pieter de Hooch – Courtyard in Delft at Evening- a Woman Spinning, 1656

A curiously odd picture to choose I think as it has nothing that is truly compelling to me about it. The scene is dull, the woman a little surreal but the maid with water jug looks repressed. It’s a sad image.

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 Samuel Palmer – Garden in Shoreham, c1830 

An older picture here with Garden in Shoreham but it was part of the revival of interest in Samuel Palmer and his work. Both William Blake and Samuel Palmer were enjoying retrospectives at this point in time.

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 Paul Cézanne – Still Life: Apples, Bottle and Chairback. 1902-1906

One of the looser Cezanne pictures and not an oil like many of his Apple paintings. It is a lovely vibrant still life.

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 Matthew Smith – Still Life with Clay Figure, I, 1939

The Still Life with Clay figure was part of a series of works Smith made in the same studio space, all rather different to each other. This was the final Penguin print before they abandoned the scheme in 1952.

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Life in an English Village: Discovered (A PDF Download)

Here is something I have been promising for some time, it is a booklet looking at the King Penguin book illustrated by Edward Bawden ‘Life in an English Village’.

Due to the volume of information and the way it needed to be referenced I have made it into a booklet for tablets and computers rather than one of my normal blog posts.

You can view and download it free as a PDF by following the this link. 

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Gentlemen Underground

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When he was commissioned to design murals for the platforms of Charing Cross underground station, artist David Gentleman (born 1930) chose as his theme the building of the medieval Charing Cross, one of the twelve memorial crosses commemorating Queen Eleanor (who died in 1290). He devised a scheme to take into account the architecture of the station, allowing spaces for entrances and exits and litter bins. He collaged together nearly 50 wood engravings which were then screen-printed onto melamine sheets by Perstorp Waterite Limited. This was the first large-scale application of wood engraving. 

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 A view of the station platform when decorated in 1979.

As with many works by any artist, what came before proved to be important. Before the Charing Cross commission Gentleman had been working in wood-engraving commercially for Penguin Books and their Shakespeare reprints. Steeped in a medieval theme and having to produce one image that would summarise a whole play it was useful training.

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 Penguin Books, Shakespeare collection with covers designed by David Gentleman.

The most interesting and taxing commission to come my way so far did not begin as an engraving job at all. Late in 1977 London Transport asked me to design a mural for Charing Cross Underground station. The practical aspects were clear enough; it was to be fabricated in screen-printed melamine laminate, curved to follow the profile of the tunnel; it would be about two metres high and it would have to find room not only for numerous platform entrances and London Transport roundels but also for various staff letter boxes, telephones, plus litter bins and wooden benches for people to sit on. The subject-matter however was pretty vague. At that time the words Charing Cross suggested little more than a closed-down hospital and a run-down British Rail terminus, and the only brief was that the mural should remind passengers of what the name Charing Cross had once meant. Graphically I was given a free hand, and also the vital assurance of being directly responsible to the two people with real authority: The Chairman, Kenneth Robinson and the Chief Architect, Sidney Hardy. 

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Having recently been working not only on the Shakespeare covers but also on lithographs for an American edition of The Ballards of Robin Hood, medieval imagery in illuminated manuscripts and paintings was still much in my mind, both for its epigrammatic clarity and for the way it often depicts a sequence of related events in one picture. This narrative technique suited the hundred-metre long strip of platform, and the idea of showing how the original Charing Cross had been constructed came to my mind straight away.

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 Original Woodblock by David Gentleman

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 Here one of the early proofs of the woodcut above for the project before the black background had been carved out.

The only proviso they made before they committed themselves absolutely to it was that a strip of it, about twenty yards long, but just as it would be finally, should be built (a mock up) in the disused Aldwych station where there are empty platforms available for such things and I got blown up (photographically) a few engravings and a few roundels… ♠ 

Underneath the roundel bulls-eye with ‘Charing Cross’ there was a bench where people can sit. So there was a bench built into the mock up, and then as the idea developed I got the idea that I could have the figures in my design sitting on the bench or using it as a work table. ♠ 

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Many stations also feature unique interior designs to help passenger identification. Often these have themes of local significance. Tiling at Baker Street incorporates repetitions of Sherlock Holmes’s silhouette. Tottenham Court Road features semi-abstract mosaics by Eduardo Paolozzi representing the local music industry at Denmark Street. ♥

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Building the first Charing Cross
The original Charing Cross was built in 1291-1294 by Edward I in memory of his wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile. It was the most splendid of the twelve Eleanor Crosses erected to mark the successive places where her body rested on its way from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, and stood near here until it was destroyed in 1647.

Richard of Crundale and Roger of Crundale were the master masons. The stone came from Corfe in Dorset and Caen in Normandy; Richard of Corfe and John of Corfe cut the English stone. Alexander of Abingdon and William of Ireland carved the statues of Queen Eleanor which stood halfway up the Cross, and Ralph of Chichester carved some of the decoration. Many others whose names are forgotten took part in the work: quarry-men, rough-hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, setters, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, falcon or crane-men, apprentices, hodmen, drivers, horsemen and boatmen. These pictures of them are by David Gentleman ♣

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 The historical plaque with the text (above) and the enlarged wood engravings by David Gentleman. 

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David Gentleman – V&A Website.
The Wood Engravings of David Gentleman, David Esslemont p114, 2000.
Oral History – David Gentleman – Reel 4, Imperial War Museum, 2008-07-03.
♥ London Underground – An overview. Pediapress
Mural text in Charing Cross Station, London.
Guide to the Archive of Art and Design, Victoria & Albert Museum by Elizabeth Lomas, 2001.

Gertrude Hermes for Penguin

The Penguin Illustrated Classics were a series of books published by Penguin to showcase wood-engraving. Only ten were issued, all in May 1938. Robert Gibbings was the Series Editor and he also illustrated a book too.

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Here is the book illustrated by Gertrude Hermes. Normally her woodcuts are fantastically expensive but as it’s a paperback book, this edition can be found easily and cheaply. A year later Hermes would illustrate another book for Penguin, (the eleventh classic) ‘The Complete Angler’ by Izaak Walton.

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Gertrude Hermes was born on 18 August 1901 in Bickley, Kent. Her parents, were from Altena, near Dortmund, Germany. In about 1921 she attended the Beckenham School of Art, and in 1922 enrolled at Leon Underwood’s Brook Green School of Painting and Sculpture, where other students included Eileen Agar, Raymond Coxon, Henry Moore and Blair Hughes-Stanton, whom she married in 1926, though they separated in 1931, and were divorced in 1933.

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Hermes exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1934, and showed at the Venice International Exhibition in 1939. In 1937 Hermes produced a commission for the British Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. She worked in Canada from 1940 to 1945. She taught wood engraving and linocutting at Central School of Art in London from the late forties to early fifties. She also took a drawing class to London Zoo. She taught wood and lino block printing at the Royal Academy Schools, from 1966. She was elected associate to the Royal Academy in 1963, a full member in 1971 and was appointed an OBE in 1981.

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King Penguin Books

The King Penguin book series were beautifully printed books. To me, they were like the Ladybird Books for adults, covering a wide range of unconnected topics and monographs.

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 A Prospect of Wales, illustrated by Kenneth Rowntree, 1948.

The motive for Penguin Books was to broaden its appeal to the public. While still a young company, Penguin shocked the Publishing world with paperback books for sale by known and respected authors. Before that the idea of paperback fiction was to expect an unknown author and a throw-away after use book.

The original run of penguin books were black and white inside and mostly text, with the iconic two stripe colour banding. The colour schemes included: orange and white for general fiction, green and white for crime fiction, cerise and white for travel and adventure, dark blue and white for biographies, yellow and white for miscellaneous, red and white for drama; and the rarer purple and white for essays and belles lettres and grey and white for world affairs.

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 D.H.Lawrence – Sons and Lovers, 1948. Original Penguin Book cover.

They were an British knock off of the Insel-Bücherei (Island Library) series published in Germany by Insel Verlag from 1912 onwards. The size of the German books with their repeated pattern book coverings was an inspiration. The head of Penguin books is quoted:

Why, we felt, should there not be a similar series of books in this country? The experiment, started a few weeks after war broke out, turned out to be successful. One of the most distinctive features of this series is their decorative covers.” †

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  Friedrich Nietzsche – Poems. Insel Bucherei 

The aim of the King Penguin is different. These have not been planned to coincide with the public’s growing appreciation of art, but rather to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes of special projects.” 

The King Penguin series were also hardback books with colour lithographic illustrations, a move away from paperback and monochrome books.

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 British Butterflies, cover by Paxton Chadwick, 1951.

The books originally combined a classic series of colour plates with an authoritative text. The first two volumes featured sixteen plates from John Gould’s ‘The Birds of Great Britain’ (1873) with historical introduction and commentary on each plate by Phyllis Barclay-Smith, and sixteen plates from Redouté’s Roses (1817–24) with historical introduction and commentary by John Ramsbottom. The third volume began the alternative practice of colour plates from a variety of sources. There were 76 volumes of King Penguin books in total.

Where as the educated scholars writing the books were the famous people at the time, today most people hunt for the illustrators, like John Piper, Edward Bawden, Hutton Clarke, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx.

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 Birds of the Sea, cover designed by Enid Marx, 1945.

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 Popular English Art, illustrated by Clarke Hutton, 1945.

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 Life in an English Village, illustrated by Edward Bawden, 1949.

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 Flowers of the Meadow, Illustrated by Robin Tanner, 1950.

† The Private Library p143, 1977

Strange Penguins

Penguins Progress; Twenty Five Years, 1935 -1960.
A beautifully illustrated book full of different variations of the Penguin Logo. If you are a fan of the books then this is a really lovely treat. Full of the history of Penguin Books and biographies of some of the key people in Penguin.

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Illustrations by David Gentleman, John Griffiths, Feliks Topolski and Theodore Ramos. Photographs by Sam Lambert, Lotte Meitner-Graf and Athol Shmith. Cover designed by Elizabeth Friedlander.

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Post War Furniture

The 1939 war has been responsible for a remarkable social experiment in the furniture field. The extreme shortage of timber, much more marked than in the previous war, and the destruction of furniture by bombing led to an unprecedented situation. A rationing system was essential, and this entailed standard specifications and designs. The President of the Board of Trade appointed a Committee to advise him. 

“On diversifications for the prediction of utility furniture of good sound construction in simple buy agreeable designs for sale at reasonable prices, having regard to the necessity for the maximum economy of raw materials and labour.”

‘The Things We See #Number 3 Furniture’ By Gordon Russell Penguin Books — 1947.:

The interesting feature of the scheme is that there has been a definite and conscious effort to grade up both designs and specification. Through it the public has therefore become accustomed to a much better and simpler type of design than was common before the war. In fact it is true to say that such designs were only obtainable then in the more expensive shops.

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This applies not only to the woodwork but to the textiles, some of which reach a surprisingly high standard of design. In view of the immense scope of the scheme, which a range of standard school furniture, it is bound to have a lasting effect, not only on the public but on the trade.

‘The Things We See #Number 3 Furniture’ By Gordon Russell Penguin Books — 1947.:

Permanent government control of design in consumer trades is hardly likely to be beneficial, but it may well prove that war-time control, accompanied by a positive urge, at a very formative period, has enabled this whole trade to review its position more freely, since the anxiety of what to make for next autumn and next sprint has for the moment been removed.


From — The things we see. Number Three: Furniture.
By Gordon Russell. Penguin Books — 1947.

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