Adventures in Retro Design

Prisoner of Zender_Topping_Bickford-Smith
Illustration by Michael Topping. Design by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2007

In 2007-8 Penguin released a series of classic adventure novels from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Released as Red Classics the authors and the titles are familiar and were once standard reading, especially for men and boys. Amongst them are The 39 Steps, The Lost World and Tarzan Returns, and they were written by famed authors such as John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The world that produced these immensely popular books disappeared a century ago, but their type of vivid excitements live on today through movie series such as The Mummy and Indiana Jones. For a taste of this series, here is the cover blurb from She, by H Rider Haggard,

“Sailing across stormy seas to Zanzibar, Leo endures shipwreck, fever and cannibal attacks, before coming face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: the beautiful, tyrannical ruler of a lost civilization.” 

The Boys Own books

The Champion 1929/ /Monster Book for Boys///British soldier with lance on charging horse

The covers of this new Penguin series reference a genre of books from the Victorian/Edwardian/colonial era, generically called “Boys Own Books”, (also the name of one of the leading publications). The contents included adventure stories, often in darkest Africa, public school shenanigens, and rugged sports and games for boys.

They had an undertone of character-building somewhat in the style of the Boy Scout movement, itself a product of that era. Various publishers produced these books and magazines, both in the UK and the US, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Their market was preteens and young teenage boys and they were immensely popular many decades.

Around the World in 80 Days////./The Lost World//

Greenmantlle//////39 Steps

Return of Tarzan//////She.//////

Year: 2008 
Illustrators: Michael Topping, Neil Gower, Mark Thomas, Mick Brownfield, Despotica. 
Lettering Artist: Stephen Raw

Coralie Bickford-Smith, Penguin designer

Ironically for such male-oriented subject matter, the series is designed by a woman, Coralie Bickford-Smith. What would those Victorians have thought?! She is a leading designer at Penguin, involved in many notable series such as Great Foods and the Penguin English Library

The covers, with their action-packed illustrations, hark back to the golden age of adventure books. The controlled use of colour gives the series a strong identity, while each cover individually contains elements – particularly the typography – appropriate to the time it was first published.

There is an unashamed nostalgia about them, though they aren’t facsimilies of old books – they are designed to have a freshness and appeal for younger readers encountering these stories for the first time, as well as for their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. – Bickford-Smith’s Penguin blurb

Coralie Bickford-Smith, Penguin artist and art director. Photo by Alex McBride

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