The story behind… Penguin on a Canvas
After a childhood surrounded by boxes of books, artist and long-time Penguin fan Harland Miller has created Penguin on a Canvas, eleven new artworks for our offices around the globe.
Read about how Penguin design has inspired him over the years and how he followed in the footsteps of Allen Lane’s Junior Designer at London Zoo in our exclusive interview.
Were Penguin titles a feature of the bookshelves of your childhood?
Harland Miller I remember more boxes than shelves –we had a lot of boxes lying around as though we’d only just moved in. My dad was a collector of sorts and he used to sneak off to sales rooms in Leeds and buy these ‘lots’ of books for about a fiver. These were basically old cardboard boxes that had once held kiwi fruits or something and were just about collapsing under the weight of having books in them. You never knew what you were getting but the very weight of the box seemed to excite my dad, like he equated this physical weight with the weighty kind of literature he expected to find inside them, like a signed first edition of J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough – in all eleven volumes or something like that.
Once he got the boxes home, he’d set them down on the floor and, kneeling before them, he’d start by carefully taking out each book and giving it a quick front and back inspection, before setting it carefully down on a pile to one side and so on and on and as his disappointment grew he’d end up with his head in the box flinging books out over his shoulder and sort of growling – the whole performance was cartoonish really. At the end of it he’d stand up and, frowning down, say to me, ‘FLING em out son, it’s all rubbish!’ I knew he didn’t mean actually ‘throw them out’ as he never threw anything out – I don’t like the term hoarder as it has a miserly bias and the real reason he never could part with anything on the moment was that one day, some hazy day in the future, he was planning on having what he called ‘A Big Clear Out!’ after which everything that was left would be satisfyingly evaluated, properly stored and logged in handy ledgers and hopefully worth more than he paid for it. I’m not sure any of it ever was to be honest – though to me it has had a worth – one that my dad could never possibly have imagined as he was walking away and turning World of Sport on in the other room. So it would be left to me to put all the books back in the boxes and out of sight before my mum got back from town. If she did appear on the scene before I had a chance she’d march into the front room and stand in front of the wrestling with her hands akimbo and say, ‘You’ve not bought another box of blasted books!’ So I was often like a harried librarian freely handling armfuls of books that in their variety were almost beyond disparate; I mean there’d often be classics among them – just not in the editions my dad dreamed of – but then there’d be like a Haynes Manual on how to fix your Ford Cortina.
There was a lot of pulp and some borderline pornography next to books on religion and maps and pamphlets of ‘What’s On in Leeds’ from the 1970s, and I think being exposed to this… this mixture of high and low culture, has had a lasting effect on me and my work as though I’m constantly wanting to make the connections between things like J.G. Frazer and girlie mags or ‘What’s On in Leeds’ and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s something of this mixture of high and low in the Penguin covers and you asked me about Penguin titles didn’t you? – well, whatever there was or wasn’t in these boxes there were always a fair few Penguins and these I remember vividly.
Why was that?
HM Well, I was the youngest of three and so always the one my dad could easily rope into these Saturday mornings of his, but the thing is I actually enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by all these books and in an eight- or nine-year-old sort of way I think I always was trying to organize them but being eight or nine I was going purely on the covers – so I might have put an F. Scott Fitzgerald book with a roadster on the cover, in the same pile as the Haynes Ford Cortina Manual, that sort of categorization. But when it came to the Penguin series I was stymied because although they were the simplest of covers they were the hardest to understand. There was no clue to what the book was about – no pictures, just the penguin. I mean there was obviously the author, which would give you some idea if you were familiar with his oeuvre but if you were nine or ten and came across a copy of Cakes and Ale you wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, a-ha! Somerset Maugham, so that’s probably not just a book feeding hangovers with cakes then – the way people did… and then there were the different colours: green, yellow, orange, blue and pink.
That was my next question actually; the original Penguin books were branded by genre, with orange for fiction and green for crime. What comes first in your paintings – the colour or the subject matter?
HM It’s always the subject matter. I start with the title and try and paint the canvas in a way that best evokes the message or sentiment or humour or whatever it is the title is trying to express. The best example of this would be ‘The Bad Weather Paintings’ series. There isn’t one in this commission, but these were the Pelican series that dealt, among other things, with the post-war Britain in which I grew up, and I made this series that satirized the northern seaside towns and culture from that time. They were sky blue to start with but faded with age so now they’re the perfect shade of an overcast kind of coastal resort. And with these I let the paint do a lot of the work – I’d start by building up the surface in watery layers, then let it run in a way that, for example, might evoke the condensation running down the insides of bus shelters or café windows; places where you might have run for cover or taken shelter against the unreliable British summer. Opposite in approach to those works were the ‘Macho Shit’ paintings, which again were satires of writers like Hemingway who were always ploughing this straightforward truthful approach, and this struggle was always a man’s struggle – make that a ‘real man’s’ struggle – and I tried to paint these pictures in that way – very sleeves-rolled-up sort of painting. I enjoyed doing them – inhabiting that role – it had something kind of Strasbergian, you know, like ‘The Method’ about it.
Many artists/designers take inspiration from the dignified but flippant air of the Penguin design. Is this something that continues to inspire you in your work?
HM Yeah, dignified, I mean to me they have a historical feel, and just history has a dignified atmosphere doesn’t it – not necessarily the events of history, which can be messy, but more the way in which we keep it – teach it – treat it. But flippant? I’m not so sure I’ve ever felt they were flippant exactly. I think that might be because when they were first published they were seen as subversive. This was a time – hard to imagine in post New Labour Britain – but this was a time when the ruling class didn’t want to see classics in the hands of the workers. This feeling is probably best summed up in the judge’s own summing up in the Lady Chatterley case in which he said: ‘Would you want your servant to read this book’,or something like that. I’ve often wanted to do something with that line – just haven’t quite worked it out yet.
One of the reasons I made some of the titles unacceptable as book titles in the literary world or the civilized world was to remind people of that subversive quality they once had – because, I mean, they’re seen as very cosy now aren’t they, like Beefeater gin or Marmite or red buses, but I know what you mean though, there is this unfathomable contrast between the seriousness of literature and the notion of a penguin as something that embodies or characterizes that seriousness – it just doesn’t. When you think about penguins or, say, when you go watch them in the zoo, it’s not long before you’re smiling to yourself, and if it’s feeding time – that’s actually a comedy. For the South African offices, I broke away from the series to make a drawing of an actual South African Black-Footed Penguin, as it’s one of the species that Penguin have used and I just thought that was very fitting. I could have got an image from a book to copy but I went to the zoo to make the drawings in a sort of homage to Allen Lane who had originally come to the same zoo to make the first ever penguin drawings, that also felt fitting too. But without wanting to sound like a hippy, what I got out of it most was a feeling of – uhm, happiness, I guess; penguins make you happy.
Why do you think the Penguin brand has left such an iconic legacy in the design world?
HM Well it might have something to do with this happy vibe bubbling in the subconscious, but I think that a lot of great design is simple; and the Penguin design is simple and yet sophisticated – the proportions are gorgeous – similar to ones used by Mark Rothko in some of his colour fields. I also think that a lot of designers are typeface freaks and though they have thousands to chose from they love the straightforward simplicity of Gill or Helvetica or Bodoni that Penguin used, and then there’s the penguin itself – so surreal and yet could you imagine a world without Penguin books?
Some of your titles are hilariously gloomy – is this symbolic of how you see the world?
HM I don’t know – I can only see the end of the world. No, I’m joking – obviously! But no, it probably is. As to why, I’ve talked about this before I think, but I think it’s because I’ve lived abroad a lot and in particular when I was living in Paris I ran out of books to read and someone told me of an English bookshop near Notre Dame. It wasn’t an English bookshop, it was a French bookshop, but outside this shop there was a cardboard box on the pavement with English titles in. A bit like my dad I bought the whole box and took it back to my studio – inside among other things were a load of Penguins and the sight of them set me off on a nostalgia trip; reflecting on my life, as it was at that time in Paris in contrast to when I was growing up in the north and life just seemed to be one big carnage – relieved here and there with humour – but obviously black humour. And it was quite a revealing reflection I think because I’d been sort of idly wondering why it was that I couldn’t quite get off on or relax into what – superficially at any rate – was my quite glamorous life there in Paris. Why I was always saying something that seemed to annoy the company – and so yeah, I think if you’re expecting things to go wrong, humour is a way of defending yourself against disaster and it just becomes habitual – whatever our circumstances. The thing is I don’t think I would have ever noticed this if I hadn’t ever moved away.
So, do you sometimes quietly laugh to yourself when you come up with a title for a new painting?
HM Sure – not always quietly either – I mean I have to find something funny otherwise I wouldn’t work with it – but it depends on how you do come up with the titles. If something shapes up fully formed in your head that you find yourself saying almost as you’re thinking it – then yeah, you can certainly find that funny and laugh quietly or otherwise, but if you hear something in which you feel there is the nucleus of an idea and you have to go away and sit down and work at it like a professional scriptwriter – adding a word, taking a word away until it scans – then you don’t laugh, not even quietly, and there’s always a neurosis behind those works.
Really you’re not sure if they are funny – you don’t trust them?
HM It’s often not that, but that a longer title won’t work graphically when you come to lay it out. I’ve got some titles that are worked out on napkins and things and stuck to my office wall and that’s probably where they’ll always stay. When I open the door they flutter up in the draught and I sort of automatically read them as they settle, and yes, they still make me laugh – or smile – but I don’t think I’ll use them.
Can you tell us what they are?
HM Hmm, ‘If Your Past Were On Fire Would You Go Back To Save It?’ Or, ‘If Failure Be The Food Of Love – Fat Bastard Is Here To Stay’, that’s the one that’s on a napkin, appropriately enough.
Would you like to see a writer commissioned to bring any of your titles to life and if so, which title would you choose and who would you choose to write it?
HM I love that question, because actually I think of all the titles as being potential ones for stories, and sometimes when I’m painting them I think about what the storyline could be and I’ve got some OK ideas I’ve jotted down, but you know they’re in a drawer somewhere and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to write them up so the idea of someone else doing them is quite appealing. But I think if you’re asking me about just one, then it would have to be International Lonely Guy – my story. His character already seems to live spectrally behind the canvas because – somewhat surprisingly – so many people seem to identify with it. Also the other reason I’d like to see it as a book is that it actually was a book, or at least it was an alter ego I was writing about at a time when I was travelling a lot and staying in a lot of impersonal hotels and it was written as a journal of that time in a kind of style that was like a sort of hard-boiled nothingness. I’d like to see it become more than that. In a way – and not to get too carried away – but I’d like to commission a dozen of my favourites writers to write their own international lonely guy chronicle and publish it as a collection. But, if I could only choose one – though we might need an Ouija board – I’d say F. Scott Fitzgerald.
HM Well, he’s my favourite writer and though Tender is the Night isn’t my favourite book of his, that rather seemed to be the character of Dick Diver by the end, and on the last page there’s a great line: something like ‘Where are you now, Dick Diver and what are you doing?’ I mean he was never really a man, Dick Diver, and he’d lost his boyish charm – but he was still a guy and he was definitely lonely and seemed to be drifting here and there around the planet – a laugh a minute, hey? But if anyone could write about that condition, Fitzgerald could.
The brief for this project was for each piece to be driven by the country in which it would be hung. Your paintings are based on a very English type of humour. Did you ever worry that this humour wouldn’t translate?
HM I was more worried it would, to be honest.
See the whole collection on the Penguin by Design Tumblr.