Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Art of Penguin at RWA Bristol

Sir Allen Lane, c1960, Associated Newspapers Ltd, Sydney *
As I write, one of the majestic exhibition rooms at the RWA in Clifton is being painted a shocking shade of orange. No, they're not filming a Fanta advert, but preparing for an imminent exhibition about the history of Penguin Books. Penguin Parade is one of four spring shows opening this weekend, alongside the travelling V&A fashion photography show Selling Dreams and exhibitions of work by Eric Ravilious and Peter Reddick.

Pick up a Penguin at Oxfam Books
I wonder how many of the books I've read have been Penguins of one kind or another. There was a period in the late 80s when I wouldn't buy a book unless it was a King Penguin, and that after a childhood in which Puffins played a significant role. I remember being quite shocked to see that a Paddington book someone gave me for Christmas had no bird logos anywhere on the cover; I recollect that it had a lion instead, which just wasn't the same.

More recently, I've found the Penguin Modern Painters series, launched during World War II with Kenneth Clark as series editor, to be wonderfully useful. In fact there are a number of artists, well-known at the time, about whom very little else has ever been published. Take the New Zealand-born artist Frances Hodgkins, a painter of expressive, stylised landscapes whose work was greatly admired in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. It is not easy to find her work or books about her, but there is a 1948 Penguin Modern Painters book, with a lively introduction by Myfanwy Evans.

Other books on Edward Bawden, Paul Nash and sundry others may not offer the best reproductions in the world (although they're amazing considering the quality of the paper and inks available) but they're solid introduction nonetheless. Carol Peaker's 2001 book 'Penguin Modern Painters: a History' offers a survey of the series.

Back in the here and now, the new exhibition is being produced by Bristol University's Penguin Archive Project and curated by Katherine Hann, who previously created the permanent collection at the award-winning Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Since Penguin Books was founded in 1935 by a Bristolian, publisher Allen Lane, it is fitting that the vast Penguin Archive should be housed at the University, and that the RWA should be hosting this unique exhibition.

Published in 1946, introduction by JM Richards
The Archive contains all manner of books, documents and artwork dating from the foundation of the company to the 1980s, a small selection of which has been chosen for the show. Visitors will discover rare books, posters, paintings and documents relating to landmark events such as the 1960 prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing DH Lawrence's notorious novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. Penguin's famous colour-coding - orange for fiction, green for crime and blue for biography - will feature prominently, making this a trip down memory lane for older visitors and, for the young, a wonderful introduction to a design classic.

There's a fascinating essay about the first ten Penguins here - not all the titles have lasted the test of time! Dashiell Hammett's 'The Thin Man' was one of the next ten.

And here's an extra story, about a Picture Puffin that never was...

'Penguin Parade' opens on Saturday March 10th at the RWA, Bristol - more information here.

*University of Bristol Library, Special Collections, Penguin Archive DM1294/2/1/22/10/2 Published in Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Jeremy Lewis 2006

1 comment:

  1. It will be worth coming to see the exhibition - definitely something for everyone.

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