Romek Marber’s collage and experimental photography
In 1961, Romek Marber was chosen as the designer of a new cover grid for Penguin’s Crime books. He had already completed two cover designs for Pelican (non-fiction) titles and was becoming established in London’s design circles. Upon acceptance of his “Marber grid” he was invited to design a series of cover illustrations as well.
To launch the new Crime series I was asked to do twenty titles. The month was June and the books had to be on display in October. Doing the Crime covers was exciting and it was fun. I tried to make each picture mysterious and intriguing. I didn’t always succeed.”
Having already booked a holiday in Italy with his wife, Marber had to work very fast to produce the artwork in time. Several of those covers are shown here and they demonstrate his expedient studio process and modernist outlook. The illustrations were made by collage, photomontage, photogram and manipulated photographs, the toolkit of high modernist photo practice since the Bauhaus era. Producing twenty original artworks for a highly conspicuous re-launch of the Penguin Crime brand, completing them in less than a month, was a high-pressure situation for a freelance artist.
The way I create pictures is time-consuming and is too personal to delegate. Usually I did them in batches. I had to take a photograph then manipulate the picture either in processing or printing. To achieve a required result I would rephotograph the print, sometimes several times, or use it in a collage. It was experimental and challenging.
The grid was important as the rational element of control. The consistency of the pictures contributed, as much as the grid, to the unity of the covers, and the dark shadowy photography gave the covers a feel of crime. The grid and the rather dark visual images, suggestive of crime, had an immediate impact. The launch was successful and Penguin went ahead changing all the covers on the Crime list to the new design.
“Father Brown gets straight to the nub of the case and always gets his man. I used a combination of photography, a model of a maze made from paper, and a length of thread to put across Father Brown’s unlimited powers of detection.
Penguin decided that books by authors who have many titles on the Penguin booklist should have individual pictorial identification. I had almost finished doing the covers for Dorothy L Sayers novels when I had a phone call informing me about the new policy. I modified the artwork and added a small white figure, which appears in a different posture on each cover, and it worked.”
For Death of a Stray Cat the picture is of a figure cut out from black paper and a charcoal rubbing taken from a wooden plank. When combined they give the feeling of the sea, shore and mystery. For the Case of the Caretaker’s Cat the black photos of catsand the hand with a dribble of black ink give the image an ominous rather creepy feeling.
Quototations by Romek Marber from:
Penguin by Illustrators, Penguin Collectors Society, 2007.
Penguin by Design, Penguin Collectors Society, 2005. Out of print.