Penguin Books is a publisher founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane and V.K. Krishna Menon. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. Penguin's success demonstrated that large audiences existed for serious books. Penguin also had a significant impact on public debate in Britain, through its books on politics, the arts, and science. Penguin Books is now the flagship imprint of the worldwide Penguin Group.
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 publishing house. 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.
"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
Penguin became a separate company in 1936 and set up premises in the Crypt of the Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road, London, using a fairground slide to receive deliveries from the street above. Within twelve months, it had sold a staggering 3 million paperbacks. Traditional publishers tended to view Penguin with suspicion and uncertainty, as did some authors. The rest, as they say, is history.
I have chosen covers that show a broad spectrum of Penguin's output over the years (I have done at least half a dozen covers for Penguin myself, as have other painters - see Duncan Grant, Peter Blake and Alan Jones below). Where possible I have shown the date of publication and the designer/illustrator's name:
|1946 Gwen White|
|1957 David Caplan|
|1958 David Caplan|
|1960 Erwin Fabian|
|1960 John Astrop|
|1960 Saul Bass|
|1962 John Sewell|
|1964 Anne Usborn|
|1964 Duncan Grant|
|1965 Peter Blake (a rather worn copy from my own collection)|
|1965 Raymond Hawkey|
|1966 Lou Klein|
|1966 Ross Cramer|
|1968 Alan Spain|
|1968 Michael Levey|
|1969 Alan Jones|
|1970 Harry Willock|
|1970 Jack Yates|
More covers in Part 2.