Neil Shawcross




In 1935 Allen Lane stood on a platform at Exeter railway station, looking for a good book for the long trip back to London. He had met with Agatha Christie, and must have left empty handed. The stalls overflowed with fiction, but too lurid and low brow for the eclectically well-read Lane, who was an enthusiastic admirer of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an enthusiasm not shared at Bodley Head, where he was managing director.

He hopped onto his train, and set out on his 200 mile return journey in disappointment. But a seed had been planted.

The birth of Penguin Books was Lane’s solution to his conundrum that day in Exeter and a riposte to the anti-Joyceans: proven and quality literature, such as Ulysses, cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine. He wanted his books to look distinctive, to stand out from the crowd, and he was adamant that innovative and good cover design should be no more expensive than bad.

On a July morning in 2017, the light is filling the Belfast studio of William Shawcross, a resident of the city since 1962. He is sitting at a round table close to the window, where he can survey works in progress, walls festooned by art – by him, by others – and a life time’s curating of spectacularly colourful bric-a-brac and ephemera. The effect, irrespective of where you look, is phantasmagorical.

However, what has peaked the artist’s interest is a large canvas behind him, and not in his line of sight. Shawcross describes it forensically, as if his picture memory has its own braille. It is The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes’ 1961 novel, yet it is not the content between the paperback covers which occupies Shawcross’s thoughts, but the bold monochromatic design by Ceri Richards.

Richards has plundered from the vaults of German Expressionism to create a book cover which is bold and Freudian. His fox, emerging from a cellar, is a fantastic element, rigidly captured within stark contrasts. Anyone acquainted with the novel’s subject – the rise of Nazism – will recognize the deliberate nightmarish mise en scene by Richards.

Shawcross has reimagined the Ceri Richards cover: his touch is precise and clearly identifiable. He pays homage to the original by deftness and subtlety, yet the technique of Shawcross is his own. He reconfigures the original design by liberating the typeface from the parallel lines.

The Fox in the Attic is by no means a representative of the classic Penguin cover – rectangles of bold colour and line drawing – with which Shawcross would have been familiar growing up in Lancashire, nor is it similar to the original Penguin cover designs. Lane’s concept, which was later perfected by the Bauhaus-influenced Jan Tschichold, was the personification of simplicity itself:  three simple horizontal bands, with the title and the author’s name dead centre. There was no image, except for a Penguin or Pelican, at the bottom.

The design, in a sense, became a slave to the marketing strategy by Lane: high quality writing (and not lurid fiction) for a low price – sixpence for a book, no more expensive than a packet of Sweet Afton. Because he was disinclined to use an image, Lane needed to distinguish fact from fiction, poetry from prose, and his solution was both ingenious and revolutionary: the top and bottom bands were colour coded.

Orange for fiction, cerise for travel (Flying Dutchman by Anthony Fokker), red for plays, yellow for miscellaneous (The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton), violet for essays (Civilisation by Clive Bell), grey for world affairs (The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism by Bernard Shaw), green for crime fiction and dark blue for biographies. Woolworths ordered 63,000 books, sold them, and Lane and his new publishing house never looked back.

Indeed forward thinking and the utilizing of new ideas – modernist design principles – allowed Penguin to keep in step with the times which were, as we know, a changing: peruse some of Tschicold’s fabulous covers in the aftermath of World War II (Caesar The Conquest of Gaul by S.A. Handford, Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet by Tschaikovsky) and the bridge spanning the cool pragmatism of Lane and the dramatic expressionism of Ceri Richards, is ripened by a European vernacular.

Tschicold was succeeded by his German compatriot Hans Schmoller, one of the last species of typographers with a profound background in the history of types, and the evolution in design is almost immediate: the cover of Mary MaCaulay’s The Arts of Marriage by Schmoller, continues Tschicold’s  experimentation, and abolishes completely the strict adherence to bold colour and line, and prefigures the cinematic inventiveness of the Polish artist, Romek Marber.

Marber, who survived both the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps, transformed the Penguin crime series – still colour coded green – with an avant garde, German Expressionism bent. He had three colours to work with: green, black and white, and achieved more with less, thus adhering to the original design philosophy of Penguin. This is part of the background to Shawcross’s imaging of the Penguin book titles, which gild the walls of the National Opera House: decades in the making, the Penguin iconography was an important and seminal visual statement for the young artist growing up in England (he was born in Bolton in 1940), and his love for the rational, functional and yet radical design, has never wavered.

There are very few artists or writers whose career bookends both the beginning and the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that of Neil Shawcross does: he came to Belfast in 1962 to teach at the Belfast College of Art, and never left, even during the decades of mayhem and bloodshed on the streets of Belfast. The city, its cultural and social life, slowly subsumed him, and the love affair between both has never been breached. “I have had a great life here,’ he explains. ‘The Troubles did not impact on my lifestyle. The department I worked in was bombed, but we were not bombed. It was an abandoned car bomb. Our building went up in flames but fortunately we all got out in time. Over the years, some of the students were injured, but nothing stopped what I wanted to be doing, or to be going.’

Weaned on Fauvism – ‘I love primary colours, black, white, red, red and green together,’ – and inspired by the portraiture of Graham Sutherland, Shawcross came of age as an artist at a time of immense international flux in art, as one movement, born overnight, seemed to overtake another. ‘Sutherland’s portrait of Somerset Maugham would have been a big influence. It has the excitement of drama. It’s theatre. I like his Helena Rubenstein. I find the female portrait quite difficult. Out of my 70 or 80 portraits, there might be six or seven females, which are among the best, and I put it down that they are so striking, that there was something extra special that got my attention.’

Disinclined to be categorized – ‘I sometimes think I am a bit of a butterfly’ – Belfast provided the ideal social milieu for an artist whose eye was forever drawn to the theatrical and even the extraordinary among the randomness of everyday life, as fodder for his portraits, such as a moustouche, or fiery red lips, or a fluorescent coat worn by a pedestrian patrol man outside his granddaughter’s school. ‘I have got to be interested in the character of course, and I hope that comes through, but I need to keep my interest from head to toe.’ As a consequence, Shawcross chooses his subjects rather than accept commissions, and paints from real life. As a portraitist, he doesn’t bother with background, and can complete the cycle of a work, from start to finish, quickly.

‘The very best ones were in one session because there was something going on there. I don’t want to analyse it too much because you could screw the whole thing up. But I am in a certain mood and so is the sitter, and you cannot recreate that again. I can do it quickly but there has been a lot of preparation. I think there is something going on that I am not aware of, but it’s there. It’s an intense, emotional experience.’

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