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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Art of Reginald Heade

The Art of Reginald Heade has been a labour of love for author Stephen James Walker. Collecting Heade artwork is no easy task, nor a cheap one. As a collector of old cheap gangster digests, I can attest that books were relatively cheap in the 1980s, but began to creep steadily upwards in price in the 1990s. In the 2000s, some Heade books were going for three figures as interest spread to collectors in the USA. Scarcity meant contemporary British digests were also rising in price, but nothing when compared to titles that could boast Heade covers.

To have all these rare book covers in one place fulfils a collector's dream. I can speak with first hand knowledge of how difficult it is to gather all of Heade's covers into one place, having taken over for some years (2003-06) the Hank Janson website set up by Allan Tagg. Heade was a prolific paperback cover artist in the post war years for some of the cheapest, lousiest publishers around, and to lay your hands on a high quality copy of any of his books is nowadays akin to a miracle.

The book is astonishingly complete for those covers we know about. Beginning in 1933, Heade began producing covers for the popular magazine Britannia and Eve, a task he continued for a decade, and dust jackets for hardbacked books. The Second World War cut short what would have been a glittering career. He suddenly faced an uncertain future as magazines folded and book publishing became patchy at best as paper shortages devastated he publishing industry.

It was only in the post-war era of cheap paperbacks that Heade thrived again, painting covers for most of the Hank Janson novels and for many of Hank's rivals. His talents were spotted early by Raymond Locker, who employed Heade for his Paul Renin romance novels and gangster yarns by Michael Storme, Gene Ross and Spike Morelli, amongst others. When the Lockers headed across the pond to set up Leisure Library, Heade was one of their major selling points.

A golden age was dulled by the death of his wife and the enforced departure of his daughter; Heade struggled on even as his publishers were gradually forced out of existence through destruction orders and prosecution. He resurfaced as Cy Webb, painting covers for Panther Books and Pan Books, but his health declined and he died at the age of 56.

For the most part, the book is everything that fans will want. Short bursts of text give context to the various sections the book is broken down into (Hank Janson, Locker & Co., US editions, harbacks, periodicals, etc.) with the bulk of the book's 168 pages given over to cover reproductions. The majority are presented four to the page, with selected covers shown full page. His fully-illustrated children's books (Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe) are reproduced at much smaller size, which is a shame, as they are uncommon and deserve to be seen at their best.

Whilst larger reproductions in places would be nice, it is a case of wanting more rather than problems within the book.* If I have any complaint to make, it is that the scarcity of some books has resulted in a number of rather poor scans being reproduced. The low quality of the original printing and paper doesn't help matters, but some scans have obvious jpeg artifacts, notably Plaything of Passion (p.53), Girl of the Bordellos (p.78), Don't Fall Sucker (p.98) and elsewhere.

Overall, this is everything the Heade collector could want. There is an author's note at the back in which author Walker mentions a number of titles that might be Heade and a second noting a handful of titles that have escaped his efforts to find. I've racked my brains trying to think of any covers that are missing from the book and I can think of only one – it's unsigned but I suspect this could be Heade.

The Art of Reginald Heade by Stephen James Walker. Telos Publications ISBN 978-1845-83115-8, January 2017, 168pp, £26.99. Available from Telos / Amazon.

* I've found only one actual error: p.106, The Two Red Capsules by David Lindsay was published by John Hamilton rather than Hamilton & Co., the commonly-used abbreviation for Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Ltd., as used elsewhere in the book.

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