Sunday, November 15, 2020

Cover Me: The Vintage Art of Pan Books 1950-1965

When it comes to collecting paperbacks, Pan Books are high on many wants lists. While Penguin has a neatly numbered system that just begs for shelf space, anyone who prefers their covers a little more colourful, will probably tell you that Pan is their shelf-filler of choice.

Colin Larkin's Cover Me is filled with some of the cream of Pan's pictorial output. As revealed in his introduction, Larkin had the good fortune to be offered a significant number of original art boards in 1990 when Pan were having a clear-out. This came to light in 1991 when he was forced to sell a number of boards at Bonhams and discussion about whether artwork should be returned to artists made some small headlines in newspapers. It coincided with the first paperback book fairs where artists like Sam Peffer and Roger Hall began meeting fans of their work for the first time.

Peffer and Hall are just two of the artists celebrated in these pages. Pan Books was founded during the war and published a handful of books before being relaunched in 1947 as a mass-market paperback publisher with deals in place with Collins, Macmillan and Hodder & Stoughton, with Heinemann coming on board in 1952.

By publishing popular romance, crime and adventure novels and collections from some of the biggest names on the books of these various companies, Pan was able to sell two million of their first dozen titles in their first six months. As a new company, getting hold of paper was a problem, resolved by having the books printed in France and shipped over on an especially-purchased ex-Royal Navy motor launch to keep transport costs down.

Pan Books adopted the tactics of the cheap paperback market, who knew the strength of a good cover. Their crime novels often featured quality covers by the likes of Reginald Heade and John Pollack, upon which often indifferent or lousy short novels could be sold. Pan used many of the same artists, coupled with named authors like Leslie Charteris, Peter Cheyney and John Buchan. By 1964, Pan was responsible for ten of the twelve paperbacks to have sold over a million copies in the UK (seven of them by Ian Fleming).

After discussing the process of preparing the artwork for printing, including the meticulous hand-lettering process, Larkin gets to the meat of the book, discussing the artists who made Pan so attractive to book collectors. Illustrated with plenty of examples of their works taken from original artwork, this is where the book really fulfills its promise.

A must for Pan collectors, this is the kind of book that will hopefully lead the many artists dismissed out of hand as hacks working for the commercial market to be reassessed. Penguin, with its "literature for the price of ten cigarettes" attitude and simple colour-coded covers, has one of the strongest brands in the UK, and has been the star of a number of books (Penguin By Design, Puffin By Design, Seven Hundred Penguins, Cover to Cover). Now, Colin Larkin has given Pan Books the same considered treatment, and hopefully it might lead to books covering the remarkable output of other publishers in the golden era of paperback covers in the two decades after the Second World War.

Cover Story: The Vintage Art of Pan Books, 1950-1965 by Colin Larkin
Telos Publishing ISBN 978-184583988-8, November 2020, 264pp, £34.99. Available from the publisher and via Amazon.

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