Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).
Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.
In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.
The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.
There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65). Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?
There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!
But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!
©Jessica Norrie 2017