The Australian Sun rises

graphic of man in suit with rubber stamp for head
Design and illustration by Brian Sadgrove, Sun Books, 1965

How Australia’s Sun Books started in the 1960s

Sun Books was a new Australian paperback enterprise that was launched in 1965. Three figures in Australian publishing and letters, Max Harris, Geoffrey Dutton and Brian Stonier had set up the Australian branch of Penguin Books in 1961 after Allen Lane himself had selected them during a visit to this country. But frustrations with the London head office led them to create Sun Books.

Aimed at an educated public and a growing intelligentsia, Sun published mainly Australian books and had a notably Australian presentation at a time of rising national feeling. One of the first titles was Donald Horne’s The Permit (above) which was his first book after the phenomenal success of The Lucky Country, the famous critique of Australian society. This choice, along with others below, flagged the direction of the new publisher. The first seven titles had a print run of 115,000 copies and they caught on with the Australian public.

Design and illustration

The manager of Sun Books, Brian Stonier, chose young Melbourne designer Brian Sadgrove to create the graphic identity and to design the covers. He came up with a bold black and white layout with a two-section grid including space for illustrations. He also developed the circular Sun logo which stood out in burnished gold, a promise of quality. The cover used the Swiss modernist typeface Univers, which apparently he applied with Letraset hand transfer lettering to save typesetting costs, a measure of his skill. 

angela-thirkell_trooper-southern-cross_sun-books_brian sadgrove design////christina-stead_the-salzburg-tales_sun-books-brian sadgrove design

A-format paperbacks are in golden section proportions and Sadgrove’s grid further employs that ratio within the cover design; it provides a square for the illustration and a generous space above for text and logo. They were smartly dressed products, and the combination of cover design, illustrations, paper stock and inside text design felt new and confident. 

Sun Books_Caddie_Robert Rosetsky design////Sun books_jan smith_An ornament of grace_brian sadgrove design

The illustrations were made from the simplest ingredients: a collage of torn news photos, high contrast photos with coloured shapes added, but they gave the covers a clever, graphic look that made their mark in bookshop displays. 

profile photo of girl with red love heart///./lardner_ecstasy-owen-muir_sun-books_brian sadgrove design

Most are by Sadgrove but some covers were made by outside artists including Robert Rosetzky (Caddie, above) and Helen Brown (An Australian Story, Riverboats, below). These sort of commissions were in a minority since freelance fees had to be kept to a minimum.

sketch of Murray river paddleboat////drawing of old Melbourne street

The grid and logo

Full cover of Sun paperback showing graphic layout
Brian Sadgrove: full cover showing grid layout

Brian Stonier instructed Sadgrove to create a design system as “un-Penguin” as possible and the books do have a singular presence on the bookshelf. Still, a resemblance can be seen to the Swiss-inspired cover regime of Penguin’s Marber grid and other grids that Germano Facetti instituted there.

three sketches for Sun Books logo
Sketches for Sun Books logo

The Sun logo was based on Aboriginal Wandjina paintings seen in Western Australia by the artist Lawrence Daws, a friend of Geoffrey Dutton’s. He made sketches that Brian Sadgrove transformed into the logo.

Two Early Successes

yevtushenko_sun-books//.//Sun Books_Blainey_Tyranny of Distance

The celebrated Russian poet Yevtushenko toured Australia in 1966 giving public readings, and Sun timed publication of two volumes to coincide with it. 

Penguin Australia turned down Geoffrey Blainey’s Tyranny of Distance (which it had comissioned). Sun Books happily published it to massive success.

With Compliments

sketch of Australian villa///back cover photo portrait of Maie Casey

The author Maie Casey was the wife of the Governor-General, Lord Casey, apart from her other accomplishments. In my copy of her book, An Australian Story, 1965, I discovered a With Complements slip from her husband enclosed at the time of publication. The book was evidently sent out to friends and colleagues. I have therefore received the complements of our head of state, the Governor General of Australia!

Lord Casey With Complements slip
With Lord Casey’s Compliments

An Illustrated  History of Sun Books

Paperback Pioneers
Paperback Pioneers Sun Books (1965-81)

A book on the history of Sun Books has been produced by Dominic Hofstede and Warren Taylor. Paperback Pioneers Sun Books (1965-81) can be purchased from Perimeter Books.


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