LS You’ve drawn covers for new editions of Kingsley Amis’s novels Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, and now you’ve just done The Green Man and The Alteration, all for the New York Review of Books. Can you describe what you were thinking in each drawing? How did you arrive at what you did?
EH I’m working on 10 titles in all, two coming out at a time. Lucky Jim and The Old Devils are the first, published in October 2012, and The Green Man and The Alteration are now up on the NYRB website (though I’ve added some color tones to what is shown there). Girl, 20 and One Fat Englishman are in the works now. And so forth.
Lucky Jim is about the amorous and career misadventures of a instructor of history at a redbrick university in England. In the first drawings I had him sitting in a pub. Then I moved him outdoors into the setting of this unnamed university. I drew several versions of 19th-century Gothicism mixed with modern brutalist architecture, with Dixon [the eponymous Jim’s last name] in the foreground. I liked the drawing of him walking towards the college, because it left his face to the reader’s imagination. The buildings are a slightly altered view of some old part of Liverpool University, with a clocktower knocked off, I think. It had to look redbrick, so I changed gray stone to brick. It’s not Keble [College, Oxford], though, though it looks a bit like it. The lawn gave the composition a bit of air. Dixon is a mediaevalist, so the Gothic architecture is apt, but it’s sham Gothic, and he’s a bit of a sham.
LS After you read the books (re-read them?) how does the process work? Do you then have a few ideas (or just one?), submit it/them to the publishers, and they choose one?
EH I dog-eared my copies of the books to the pages with useful descriptions and worked from them where I could. I also found references in my own library. I have a lot of books of photos and illustrations from the decades when Amis was writing in England. I like the cover to create an atmosphere more than set up the story. The atmosphere ought to be right. Correctly drawn.
LS Did you know from the outset that they’d be a series?
EH Once the author’s son [the writer Martin Amis] had approved my first two cover illustrations I began working on the rest, drawing as many as a dozen variations for each one. I’m trying to give them a fairly unified look, using the same medium but varying the colors, the level of detail, the composition, the feel. I wanted to give the reader a sense of the robust variety of Amis’s novels, which is pretty remarkable. Not monotone. He’s not like Jane Austen in that regard. He’s a louder satirist than she is but has a sharp eye for detail. The drawing I did for The Green Man has a more rococo quality, a bit more Fragonard, more lushly drawn than the Ben Shahn or Edward Bawden quality of Lucky Jim. The Old Devils is somewhere between Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman. I was fairly ruthless with my portraits of old age, but so is Amis. There’s affection in the drawing too, I think.
LS Is the coloring of the type in the box done after the drawing, and chosen to complement it? Do you have any say in that?
EH Katy Homans [the designer in charge of NYRB Classics] does a brilliant job with color, I think. That’s a big part of the appeal of the whole NYRB line, using a striking palette of colors in a uniform design, not only on the cover panel and spine but in the endpapers. I have a shelf full of NYRB titles. The brightness or richness of the colors Homans uses gives me license to use less color or fewer colors, to not paint the art out in every shade but to try monochrome, or two colors, or surprising colors. In that last regard, I’m probably influenced by the Batsford covers done by Brian Cook in the 1940s and ’50s and by London Transport posters. These covers function like posters, really. Bright, bold, declarative. I’d love to see them published as posters. Not just the ones I’ve done. There’s something very strong about them.
LS Do you know why these are being reissued now?
EH Not really. It’s about time, though. I like discovering an author and being able to read everything he or she has written in a neat, coherent and evocative format. I think of the Marc Boxer series of covers for Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and the Maughams that Penguin published with the photographed period ephemera on the covers. Also, being brought out by an imprint like NYRB sets the author in a special category. It’s literature. Modern, smart, trenchant, louche, funny.
LS Did you look at any previous covers to see what other designer/illustrators have done?
EH I wasn’t a fan of the earlier editions of his work, apart from the 1954 Edward Gorey cover for Lucky Jim and the period photograph that Penguin Modern Classics used 10 or 15 years ago. I’m always working from influences, but I avoid working from predecessors doing the same thing, the same title or subject.—LUCY SISMAN