Art and the Modern Classics

Penguin Modern Classic_Nineteen Eighty Four_Orwell
Detail of William Roberts’ The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin …..

In the 1960s, Penguin art director Germano Facetti revised the cover design for Penguin Modern Classics. He wanted a bold, impactful look, with large full-colour images and sans serif headings to match. His new layout used existing artworks instead of commissioned illustrations as before. The images were from the history of art and were carefully matched to the contents of the book, they were chosen for their thematic aptness and were from the same period as the book.

The selection of image depended on Facetti’s understanding of the text. His knowledge of what cultures produced what kind of imagery at a given moment is prodigious, backed by a visual memory and a systematic storing of reference. (

Facetti’s method is shown in these covers for the three key dystopian novels of the the twentieth century, Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World. Note how well each painting reflects the content of the book, as summarised in their backcover blurbs.

William-Roberts_The Control Room
William Roberts, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942

1984 presents a nightmarish regime of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of all persons and behaviours within society. The Ministry of Truth deals with propaganda, the authorities keeping a check on every action, word, gesture or thought.

The painting on the cover is by the English artist William Roberts and shows the workings of a wartime department at Civil Defense Headquarters.

We_Zamyatin_Penguin Modern Classic/////Suprematist_Composition_Malevich//////

Left:   Penguin book: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921

Right: Painting: Suprematist Composition by Kasimir Malevich, 1916, oil on canvas, private collection.

We “tells the story of persons known as numbers living in the One State. All numbers live by a rigid timetable, performing exactly the same motions in time with one another.”

Suprematism was a Russian avant-garde movement at the forefront of the new abstract art. It concentrated on purity of form and reduction to elemental shapes.


Left: Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                   

Right: PaintingMechanical Elements, Fernand Léger, 1924

Brave New World “satirises the idea of progress put forward by the scientists and philosophers.”

Léger’s paintings at this time were inspired by his wartime experiences, the excitement of industrial technology in conflict: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal.” 



Penguin_Animal Farm_Miro cover72.2020_ph_web_2



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