Cover art through the years: The Rasp, by Philip Macdonald (1924)
It’s clear that my most popular posts have been the ones where I say the least and show the most pictures; my readership figures for recent posts collecting the cover art of Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr have been through the roof. So I’ll be bringing you more posts like that in the future, since they’re easy to put together and fun to conceive, and you folks like them. I’ll be calling these “Cover art through the years” unless they’re affiliated with another blogging project like Tuesday Night Bloggers.
The best way to appreciate how styles in cover art have changed, I think, is to take a classic book that has been frequently in print over many years and see how many iterations its design can go through. I decided on the spur of the moment to pick a book from my shelves at random — well, no, I should be more truthful. This happened when I was shelving books and sorting alphabetically by author. As I muttered to myself, “Is it really necessary to have FOUR different copies of The Rasp on my active shelves?” an idea was born. And so I scoured the internet for different photos of different editions.
Look how many different ways of seeing the cover art there have been! It’s interesting, because the central mystery puzzle of this novel is dependent upon — and I’ll be circumspect about how I phrase this — a visual image. The only artist to even come close to this visual image (a) gets it wrong, and (b) is close to giving away the mystery; unfortunately all this suggests to me is that a bunch of art directors didn’t bother to read the book carefully before packaging it, which is quite common these days and apparently was back then also.
I do like the earliest Collins hardcovers, which are classically lurid, but my favourite here would have to be the cheerful surrealism of 1984’s edition from Vintage, where two oval portraits and a fireplace grate combine to form a shocked face. My second favourite would be US Penguin #79, with an extremely detailed pencil drawing and some exquisite typography.
But the most valuable paperback edition is the first UK Penguin (greenback) printing from 1937, in excellent condition with a crisp paper dust jacket (yes, early UK Penguins had a jacket; it adds hugely to their value if present). This edition also seems to be #79, which is a peculiar coincidence or else more probably my research has misled me. (added later the same day: See below in the comments; my expert friend John from Pretty Sinister books confirms that they are both #79, published years apart, and it’s just a strange coincidence.) Because of the superb condition and the provenance — it comes from the collection of Ian Ballantine, who founded Ballantine Books — ABE’s most expensive copy is priced today at US$175. A “Good” copy (“Good” is bookseller code for “barely acceptable as a reading copy”) of the 3rd printing with a chipped jacket will set you back US$60.
Which one is your favourite? And if anyone knows if UK Penguin #79 and US Penguin #79 are both The Rasp, let me know in the comments, please!