Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Art and Design

The first, and latest Tartarus hardbacks

Tartarus Press has a consciously old-fashioned, classic design style, which has slowly evolved over the years, but remains essentially the same. The original idea was to emulate the elegant books of the 1920s published by such august firms as Martin Secker. This seemed fitting for the Edwardian storytellers we were publishing at the time, but the unfussy, clear layout was also, in many ways, quite modern.

Back in 1994, just a few years after Tartarus had started publishing, I showed a copy of one of our early books, Ritual and Other Stories, to the late Father Brocard Sewell of the Aylesford Press. He had worked alongside Eric Gill, and had been involved in publishing all his life, and he offered some useful advice. For example, he gently explained that the Times New Roman font I was using was designed for newspapers, not books; as I didn’t have to pack text into narrow columns he suggested I should use a more elegant yet unfussy typeface. There were other specific recommendations, but the single most important thing he said was that great design should not be noticeable. “Clever” typography and design that in any way distracted from the text was not fit for purpose. 

Seventeen years after that meeting we are still honing the design of our books, and hopefully much of it goes unnoticed. There is a dichotomy, however, when this philosophy of understatement comes up against the design of dustjackets…

Traditionally, dustjackets were no more than pieces of paper wrapped around a book so as to keep the cloth clean and undamaged while it was in transit between the bookseller and the purchaser’s bookshelves. It made sense to print the title of the book on the wrapper, and perhaps other useful information, but they were originally entirely unadorned and practical, and to be disposed of.  And then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was realised that an arresting image and a few lines of hyperbole could help sell the book. All of a sudden, an eye-catching design for a wrapper was de rigeur 

If, today, you walk into any bookshop (make the most of them, they are a dying breed), you are confronted by countless shelves of books all striving to catch your attention. So what makes for good dustjacket artwork now? It’s largely a matter of taste, of course, but I’ve often felt that even the greatest images and designs can lead the reader in a certain direction which is not necessarily appropriate to the text. And if the artwork is poor then it can actually dissuade someone from buying  the book.

Clockwise from top left, illustrations by Peter Strasfeld, Jason Eckhardt, Steven Stapleton and Sidney Sime.

After we had published our first few of books, we bowed to the inevitability of printing an image on our jackets, establishing a house style with an appropriate but understated black-and-white vignette. We’ve been lucky enough to get permission to use images by Sidney Sime (The Hill of Dreams), Peter Strausfeld (Le Grand Meaulnes), Jason Eckhardt (Forever Azathoth), David Johnson (Guides to First Edition Prices and Gunter Weber’s Confession) and Steven Stapleton (The Collected Strange Stories of Robert Aickman). However, sometimes we’ve been really stuck for appropriate artwork, and I’ve had to draw it myself!

Clockwise from top left, images by R.B. Russell for Three Miles Up, The Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley, The Cheetah-Girl , and The Shapes in the Fire.

On a weekly basis we receive submissions from artists, but it is very, very rare that their work is appropriate to the books we publish. And then, at the end of 2009, we came across the artwork of Stephen Clark. He had been illustrating posters for a series of alternative music gigs in Leeds and his work was so beautiful and strange that we got in contact with him and he provided the artwork for Strange Tales III, then the paperback edition of Machen’s N. We also commissioned him to provide the powerful image for Sourdough by Angela Slatter. Stephen’s  work is now adorning our series of reprints by Robert Aickman.

Robert Aickman, with jacket artwork by Stephen Clark

What we like about Stephen’s artwork is that it is so suggestive, without quite being explicable; is curious, strange and twisted, yet quite beautiful. There is also something about it that is quiet, unassuming and confident.

 Illustrations by Stephen Clark for Cold Hand in Mine, Dark Entries, Powers of Darkness and Sub Rosa.


  1. Fascinating piece. To my mind, Tartarus Press books are by far the best designed on the market, and the cool understatement of the wrappers are a key part of that. I've known Stephen and his work for many years, and was absolutely delighted to see his designs start to appear on your books.

  2. Great post, it's interesting to hear the thought that goes into Tartarus' consistently elegant designs.

    I have nothing against Stephen Clark's work, exactly, it is indeed evocative and strange, but I find it a bit same-y. I think it's the faces in nearly every piece, all with the same cast to the features...

    Just my own opinion of course, and nothing that diminishes the excellence of Tartarus and its books...

  3. I came across Stephen's work via Ex Occidente and his novella 'The Satyr'. I thought the images looked familiar and, of course, it was from his artwork from Strange Tales III that I recognised his style. I think the images work very well for the genre, and am particularly looking forward to the rest of the Aickmans (with fingers crossed that they will also feature his work - if only for the sake of continuity)!