Judging by its cover

Puffin by Design: 70 years of imagination 1940-2010

Writer Phil Baines is professor of typography at Central St Martins, University of the Arts in London so it is hardly surprising that his text involves the technical principles of reproduction and design, although it may be a slight disappointment to anyone whose memories of Puffin Books are bound up in images which have never been forgotten.

The almost immediate success of Allan Lane and his brothers in setting up Penguin paperbacks in 1935 meant that the company was in a strong position in 1940 when paper rationing was based on the amounts used in the year before the outbreak of the Second World War. Even so, it is remarkable that Penguin decided to devote so many of its resources, at a time of considerable difficulties in the publishing business, to the production of material for children and at a level which reflects the best of British graphic design and illustration.

Children, especially very young children, have no standards by which to differentiate what is good from what is mediocre. As a publisher Allan Lane was determined to establish very high standards with the introduction of what Baines calls “colourful outsiders: With the Puffin titles, the illustrator is central, and particularly dominant for the first 20 years”.

Influenced by children’s books from Russia and France and by advances in technique which could reduce the cost of production and give a more faithful representation of the work of the artist, editor Noel Carrington took his idea for the publication of explanatory texts with strong illustrations to Allan Lane. Accepting these proposals, Lane stipulated that the books should cost no more than six pence. Even the outbreak of the war did not deter him. He wrote to Carrington, “Evacuated children are going to need books more than ever, especially your kind on farming and natural history. Let us plan to get out half a dozen as soon as we can.”

The Puffin logo followed on the company’s existing brands of Penguin and Pelican, and quickly assumed an equally dominant character within its market. That market was to change, of course, but the initial titles reflected the imperatives of the times: War on Land, War at Sea, War in the Air and — especially geared towards the city children bewildered by rural Britain — On the Farm.

The titles which followed over the next five years included such picture books series as Animals of the Countryside. Well written, with clarity as the defining goal, these books involved a number of specialist authors; their particular visual quality, however, depended not only on the continuing simplification of artwork techniques but on the quality of the artists themselves. CF Tunnicliffe, Lionel Edwards, Paxton Chadwick — illustrators such as these brought Puffin an appreciative readership through different styles.

But even in those dire times Puffin found room for a character, and an artist, who would become stalwarts of the firm: Orlando the Marmalade Cat made his appearance there in 1941, and writer and illustrator Kathleen Hale’s work for Puffin only ended after 18 titles and 30 years.

The informative and downright educational publications continued, from ABCs to woodwork, sailing, history, motor mechanics, armour, adventure, prehistoric life, etc.

The Baby Puffins appeared in 1943 and 1944 respectively but when what were called ‘story books’ began in 1941 (with ‘Worsel Gummidge’ by Barbara Euphan Todd) the cover illustrations were restricted, as indeed were the books themselves as the editors at Puffin wanted only to present paperback editions of the best new titles.

The insistence on quality, while it reduced production, ensured the Puffin tradition of books which last a lifetime in the memory although it also cost the company some potential profits: among the rejected writers were Enid Blyton and JRR Tolkien whom, according to Baines, were felt to be “less than worthy of publication by Puffin”. (Tolkien was retrieved later.)

Lettering, now an art almost ignored in public signage and illustration, was a crucial fixative for the pictures which lured young readers into what were often challenging texts. It seems to have been lost altogether in the later photographic cover designs, but there was a time when it was part of the illustrator’s own register. That register however expanded to a degree which seems not to have been hindered by the economic and political changes of the last seven decades, not least within Allan Lane, Penguin and Puffin themselves.

A companion piece to Penguin by Design by the same author, this book is a delight to the visual memory as well as a valuable example of a company which takes seriously the right of children to the best in literature and art.

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