The results of unconventional illustration commission

In a break from conventional commissioning practice, one publisher has let artists pick the stories they would like to illustrate. The results of this brave approach are quirkily imaginative reinterpretations of some well-known titles, discovers Simon Lox

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are more ways to develop a publishing concept than by simply pairing minor celebrities with ghost writers. Four Corners Books, the editorial team of Elinor Jansz and Richard Embray, has since 2003 pooled its experiences in fine art and publishing with the aim of producing accessible, affordable art books. In its series Four Corners Familiars it has taken a less conventional commissioning route – approaching an artist and giving them the choice of story they would like to illustrate.

The format changes from book to book, the only constants being the hand and eye of John Morgan as designer and an oblique approach to the texts, making the familiar unfamiliar once more and recapturing that lost initial impact. The result is a series that is visually striking and, dangerous as it is to make predictions, surely destined for iconic status.

Alluding to the story’s original 1890 appearance in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the first Familiar – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – has been published in a large soft-cover format. The well-tried method of illustrating Dorian Gray is to take an image roughly appropriate in terms of content from a gallery collection of the period. Gareth Jones has also taken a found-image approach, but there the similarity ends; he lifts the story from fin-de-siècle London and transplants it to 1970s Paris, courtesy of a series of Gitanes cigarette advertisements from the Sunday supplements of the period.

The gazes of the earringed boulevardiers featured in the ads would today be read as an obvious homosexual come-on, but most in fact exude a slightly creepy self-absorption. Narcissus was an image that held great resonance for Wilde, and Jones poses far more questions about Dorian Gray’s personality than the traditional modern-classics route of illustration ever could. Morgan has added to the visual provocation by using as a highlighting typeface ITC Benguiat – a distinctive 1970s pariah from current typographical tastes – and a cover design in which the title of the book and the author’s name do not feature.

Dracula is illustrated by James Pyman, who restricts conventional vampire imagery to one bat and one shadowy castle. The rest of the illustrations are refreshingly off-kilter, with a dreamy intensity that suggests the hallucinatory obsessiveness of fever. Morgan has addressed the visually dense, epistolary format of Bram Stoker’s prose by assigning each correspondent in the story their own text face, making for an inviting page.

Blumfeld: An Elderly Bachelor is a little-known novella by Franz Kafka. Unfinished (no surprises there), it tells the story of a man who returns home to find that two bouncing balls have invaded his living space. Where have the balls come from? How would the story have ended? With Kafka there are always more questions than answers.

David Musgrave has intensified the conundrum with a series of tiny illustrations showing what appear to be artefacts from a lost civilisation as obscure as the origin of the balls themselves, their purposes equally unknowable. Morgan has used Kafka’s text face of choice, Walbaum, and designed op art endpapers that gave the book’s printers a literal headache at proofing stage.

With other titles in preparation for next year, Four Corners continues to court serendipity in developing the series – it is offering an open submission for a title, the details of which will be announced in October. •

Dracula and Blumfeld: An Elderly Bachelor will be published in October. The Picture of Dorian Gray is currently available

Simon Loxley is a freelance designer and writer, and editor of the St Bride Library journal Ultrabold

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