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

Pan paperbacks are among the first adult books I can remember making a serious impression on me. My father had a number of Pan editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books in the collection of paperbacks he had in his den and from an early age I was entranced by their colourful, energetic, somewhat carnal covers.

Colin Larkin’s Cover Me: The Vintage Art of Pan Books: 1950-1965 notes the Fleming series was, not surprisingly, a huge seller for Pan. The books my father owned, which I still have, include cover art by Pat Owen and ‘Peff’ or Samuel John Peff, the latter one of Pan’s most used artists in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. I also discovered from Larkin’s book that the small drawing of a suave looking Bond holding a pistol that appears in a banner at the bottom of the main cover design in some of the Fleming Pan editions, was an illustration of Ralph Vernon-Hunt, the company’s managing director at the time.

Pan paperbacks appeared in Australia in large numbers in the three decades after World War II, and can still be found relatively easily in second-hand bookstores and thrift shops throughout the country. I have a fairly large collection, including I am happy to say, many of those that appear in Larkin’s simply sumptuous work.

That Cover Me is a significant labour of love is clearly signalled by Larkin’s account of the book’s origins, a fascinating, at times torturous tale of how he came into possession of over 600 original Pan cover illustrations, part of what he estimates is around 2000 different pieces of art produced by pan up until 1966, and what followed.

Cover Me is quite simply one of the most beautiful appreciations of the paperback format I can remember reading. It also fills an important gap in the history of British paperback publishing in recounting the origins and operations of Pan from 1950 to 1965, including a lot of material gathered from interviews with the artists and editors involved in the company during this time.

Pan had its origins in the mid-1940s, produced its first books in 1947, and despite numerous challenges, including post war paper shortages, quickly went on to achieve stellar success in terms of paperback sales. The immediate post war period in the UK, as was the case in the US, saw a major paperback boom. But a number of other factors were unique to Pan’s success: a largely captive Commonwealth market; the company’s resolutely popular appeal; their agility in responding to shifting reading tastes and fashions; and, by 1955, the development of a standard cover design template, the familiar curved corner yellow titled panel over a colourful illustration, along with the Pan logo, originally designed by writer and artist Mervyn Peake. The company’s success, which Larkin documents at some length, resulted in a wave of competitors, Corgi in 1951, the paperback imprint of Collins, Fontana, Arrow, the imprint of Hutchison, Panther in 1952, and Four Square.

An interesting question running through Cover Me is whether Pan books can be described as ‘pulp’. As frequent readers of this site will be aware, I do not subscribe to what I believe is the completely outmoded definition of pulp as only applying to the all-fiction digest magazines that appeared in the US pre-World War II. Larkin writes that Pan books were a ‘glorious mixture of cost post-war leisure and a touch of American influenced eroticism’.  One of the company’s key marketing strengths was that it did not compete directly with what at the time was the dominant paperback publisher in the UK, Penguin. Pan very cannily aimed at a readership a rung below what they thought Penguin’s was, at the same time as going higher than the mushroom pulp publishers that briefly proliferated in the years directly after 1945.

But Pan also had to compete with the American paperbacks that flooded into the UK market after the lifting of wartime import restrictions in the late 1940s, publishers such as Signet, Dell, Avon and Bantam, all of which sported often lurid, highly varnished covers. Pan had no choice but to compete. By the standards of the day, their covers were often sensational and highly eroticised but their great skill was to present covers that were risqué enough to catch the eye while at the same time not attracting the attention of censors, as did the mushroom publishers, one of the key factors that contributed to the latter’s decline due to a wave of obscenity charges against them, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Pan paperbacks were marketed as disposable fiction, meant to be read over the course of a journey and then thrown away. Larkin probably comes closest to staking out a position on the pulp/not pulp question when he calls Pan books ‘pulplite’. In short, like many of the major paperback publishers that came to prominence during the post-war paperback boom, Pan’s material blurred the aesthetic and literary boundaries between what was considered pulp and other modes of literary production to the point where it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

There are a few aspects of in Larkin’s history of Pan I would quibble with. For example, while the publisher’s sales were undoubtedly significant, I am not entirely sure that the assertion that ‘the dreaded word “remainder” did not exist in their vocabulary’ holds up to scrutiny, given the sheer amount of Pan product that turned up as remaindered stock in Australia, and no doubt other Commonwealth countries, after the war. Indeed, the international dimensions of Pan’s operation and success is an omission in the book generally.

It is important to emphasise, however, that Cover Me is an appreciation not a detailed academic history. And while you may come to this book for Larkin’s deep inside knowledge of Pan’s operations, you’ll end up staying for are the 300 plus covers reproductions, many of them full page, all of them in colour.

While original Pan cover art from the period examined by Larkin is now highly valuable and sort after by collectors, like books themselves, at the time it was seen as a disposable commodity. The job of the paperback artists was not high status, indeed it was sometimes viewed as a rather down at heel way to make a living. Jobbing commercial illustrators contributed covers on fee for piece basis and for the most part they did not retain the rights to their work. While Pan had high production standards, artists were expected to work fast to meet tight deadlines.

There is a great chapter on the process by which Pan developed its cover art and its signature style. But most Larkin’s most impressive achievement is the painstaking work he has undertaken to compile biographical details for every one of the fifty or so artists who worked for Pan from 1950 to 1965. While some of these, like the aforementioned Peff, worked for Pan regularly and are quite renowned, many others contributed only a small number of covers for publisher and, until now, little is known about them.

All of these people get their due in Cover Me. Larkin’s examination of their work and their role in the unique ‘look’ of Pan that they created, as he points out, valuable archive of fashions, trends and styles of the times.

Cover Me: The Vintage Art of Pan Books: 1950-1965 is available from Telos Publishing.


One Response

  1. To track down the artists’ bios really is an extraordinary achievement. I must have a look through this one.

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