There have been very few graphic innovations in book jacket design over the years – more a progression and reassessment of what has gone before.
But one clear innovation came by chance via the wife of the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming. Ann Fleming had visited an exhibition in 1956 of trompe l'oeil paintings by Richard Chopping, whose works were being shown alongside those of Francis Bacon.
Ian Fleming was unhappy with his Bond covers and decided to take control of his jackets. He was on the lookout for something new for his forthcoming book From Russia with Love. Ann felt that Chopping seemed like the perfect answer. When Fleming saw Chopping’s work, he commissioned him immediately. So began a lucrative relationship that spanned from 1957 to 1966.
Above: just two of the many James Bond covers designed and illustrated by Chopping.
Originally, Richard Chopping was destined to be a fine artist, with hopes of making a living as a painter after leaving the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in the 1930s. During his time as a student, he dreamed of joining the London bohemian set that he’d read so much about, with its diverse range of artists, writers, poets and dancers, often involving complex love triangles. On leaving the art school, he lived a very frugal life and at the same time was struggling with self-confidence and his sexuality. He longed to experience what he hadn’t yet achieved: a relationship with a man. This eventually came in the shape of the landscape painter Denis Wirth-Miller, a couple of years his senior and bursting with self-confidence, sophistication and many connections.
Chopping with Wirth-Miller at the Storehouse, their home in Wivenhoe, Essex
Chopping and Wirth-Miller soon became an item, and shortly after the Second World War, they moved in together, living an impoverished hand-to-mouth existence, firstly in shoddy London flats. When that became too expensive, they opted to move to the Essex countryside and found an inexpensive cottage to rent. It was damp and, in the winter months, extremely cold. But they organised their respective studio spaces and got to work. Wirth-Miller had connections with the rarefied world of Bloomsbury’s Bohemia of artists, writers and socialites. These influential connections spawned gallery exhibitions, benefactors and friendships with the likes of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and John Minton.
An early commission from Penguin Books published in 1943.
But it was a slow process, and they would often go hungry through lack of interest in their work. But Chopping did come to the attention of Penguin Books. They had seen some of Chopping's forensically detailed trompe l'oeil paintings and commissioned him to undertake some natural history projects and a mammoth project involving a series of 22 illustrated books on the complete British flora and fauna. This would bring in much-needed income, keeping the wolf from the door. For Chopping, this commission would take him away from fine art into the world of commercial illustration, but needs must. In the event, the commission was halted after two years by Penguin’s Allen Lane, who decided that the project was uneconomical.
Living with Denis Wirth-Miller was a challenge, with petty jealousies and violent outbursts, often fuelled by alcohol. This was exasperated by the increasing presence of Wirth-Miller's close friend Francis Bacon, with his own brand of cruel, cutting sarcasm. Chopping remained a rather reserved, considered individual and was overwhelmed by the more flamboyant personality of Wirth-Miller, especially when in league with the master of manipulation Francis Bacon. Life then became painful, and Chopping walked a tightrope between the two, often being a target of Wirth-Miller's aggression following a put-down by Bacon.
As homosexuals, they lived during a period when the act was still a crime and punishable by a prison sentence. And indeed, Wirth-Miller served 18 months in jail in 1944 after being arrested for gross indecency. It wouldn’t be until 1967 that the law on homosexuality would be repealed. Prior to that, clandestine meetings took place in lavatories, bushes or back alleys, always with a fear of arrest, violence or blackmail.
Wirth-Miller, Francis Bacon and Chopping on one of their many overseas trips.
Chopping and Wirth-Miller were frequent visitors to the seedy Soho Colony Club, or the French pub around the corner, where Bacon, Freud and other inflated egotists would hold court in a drunken haze, raising their voices over the hubbub and shelling out £50 notes like confetti. And over the post war period, an alarming number of suicides seemed to be the norm among this tight-knit community
Both Chopping and Wirth-Miller began to gain some success, enabling them to leave the damp cottage and move into a rundown waterside home in Wivenhoe, Essex. They named it the Storehouse and as they earned money, they would renovate the house, eventually having a young Terence Conran design their kitchen. Both the house and Wivenhoe itself became an artist community. Their home became a social hub, with many notable people visiting, including John Minton, Keith Vaughan and Francis Bacon. The latter even bought a house there himself but never managed to paint or live there.
The interior of The Storehouse. the kitchen was designed by Terence Conran.
Chopping and Wirth-Miller lived together through thick and thin for almost 70 years, and they were the first couple to register a civil partnership in Colchester. They lived into their 90s, by which time, through illness and old age, they had degenerated into appalling squalor. All of their contemporaries were long dead and history had forgotten them until a wonderful and fascinating publication, The Visitors’ Book by John Lys Turner, was published in 2016 – a fascinating read.
An example of Chopping's trompe l'oeil painting style that brought him to the attention of Ian Fleming.
The above is the cover for Ricards Chopping's only novel, The Fly 1965. Notable for its lack of any type of the front cover.
Raymond Hawkey's iconic book cover for The Ipcress File designed in 1962 and below from 1964
Chopping’s detailed watercolours of inanimate groupings to entice Bond readers to pick up Ian Fleming’s books were later dramatically moved forward in the hands of ex-RCA graduate Raymond Hawkey, who produced the stark black-and-white photographic cover design for Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File – a book that transformed the spy thriller genre from the excesses of James Bond to the gritty, down-to-earth character of Harry Palmer. The Smith & Wesson pistol that appeared on From Russia with Love was replicated on The Ipcress File but with a sharp new modernist approach from Hawkey, making Chopping’s Bond covers look rather sedate and old-fashioned. But Chopping’s influence on the evolution of the humble book jacket should not be forgotten.
For more on Raymond Hawkey click here.