Saturday, January 4, 2020

Grisly Adams: Exploring the Artist’s Range

Part of a series honoring the late cover artist Tom Adams.

The Final Steal, by Peter George (Dell, 1965). This was the seventh novel released by George, who’d become famous for his spy thrillers and murder mysteries. His best-remembered work is 1958’s Red Alert (aka Two Hours to Doom), which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Cover art by Tom Adams.

Typically, when I set out on this page to pay tribute to a book-cover artist—be it Harry Bennett, Ron Lesser, Paul Rader, Robert Stanley, or anyone else—I ruminate at length upon which fronts best represent that virtuoso’s talents and how best to present them, either all at once or in a succession of posts. But that wasn’t the case when I decided to celebrate the work of American-born Anglo-Scots painter and illustrator Tom Adams. I read on The Gumshoe Site in mid-December that Adams had passed away at age 93, and a day later, I launched Killer Covers’ salute to his accomplishments. I figured I had ample scans of his book art in my computer files; anything else I needed, I could dig up as the series progressed.

Casting my eye back over the last two weeks of Adams-oriented posts, I’d say they have been most satisfactory. And surprising in some respects. For instance, I hadn’t known before undertaking this project that Adams, who I’d always associated with crime and mystery fiction—especially books by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler—also provided imagery for science fiction, horror, and espionage novels. I also discovered that, while Adams’ Christie illustrations were elegant and intricate, and certainly dramatic, other of his paintings were markedly more sensual in nature. (He even worked bare breasts into a Chandler cover!)

I had reason, during my researches, to read a number of stories about the artist and his efforts. One of the best was this recent obituary from The Daily Telegraph, which avers that Adams “elevated paperback cover art to unprecedented heights; his arresting covers for Agatha Christie’s whodunnits in the 1960s and 1970s proved to be the happiest pairing of a crime writer and an artist since Conan Doyle and Sidney Paget.” The piece goes on to tell how Adams, trained as a painter at the Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmiths College, in London, commenced his cover-creating career:
It was the jacket cover Adams produced for the hardback of Fowles’s novel The Collector (1963) that made his reputation. The design director of Jonathan Cape, Tony Colwill, wanted something in the trompe l’oeil style of Richard Chopping’s covers for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Adams, who could be somewhat diffident about his own abilities and had only recently begun working in the field of cover art, doubted whether he had the necessary skill, but accepted the challenge when Colwill bet him £25 that he could pull it off.

Adams lost the bet, producing an immaculate rendering of a key, a lock of hair and a pinned butterfly [shown on the right]. Fowles judged it “incomparably the best jacket of the year (if not of the entire decade)”.

This work brought Adams to the attention of Mark Collins and Patsy Cohen at William Collins, who were seeking talented young artists to produce covers for the Fontana paperback imprint; this was something of an experiment at a time when publishers rarely invested much money or thought in paperback cover art.

They recruited Adams to paint a cover for a paperback reissue of Agatha Christie’s mystery
A Murder Is Announced. Adams went on to paint some 150 covers for Christie’s books, either for Fontana or for Pocket Books in the United States.

By this time the elderly author was writing novels that were more discursive and emotional than her usual tightly plotted crowd-pleasers; Adams’s striking covers helped to keep paperback sales of her classic books healthy, and arguably prevented her from slipping out of public favour. Long after they were out of print, his paperbacks were highly sought-after by collectors.
It was interesting, too, to read in the Telegraph that Adams “continued to paint into his nineties.” And that in addition to book covers, he “designed posters for 2001: A Space Odyssey and special effects for the 1980 film of Flash Gordon; produced award-winning advertising campaigns; and painted album covers for Lou Reed, who came for tea and cake in his Fulham flat, and Iron Maiden.”

My curiosity about his work, though, focuses around his book-cover art, as well as the paintings he did for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Oui, the latter being a Playboy product from the 1970s. Additional examples are embedded below.

Adams began his association with Agatha Christie by painting the cover on the left, from the 1963 Fontana edition of A Murder Is Announced. He continued to provide artwork for her books through to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1980), shown on the right.

Adams customarily (and reportedly by edict of the Christie estate) did not include images of either Miss Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot on his Christie covers. Yet on the rear panel of this 1971 Pocket edition of The Mystery of the Blue Train, Poirot can be spotted standing to the right of the locomotive.

Another thing I hadn’t known before reading The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of him was that Adams provided cover paintings for a number of entries in Sue Grafton’s “alphabet series” of Kinsey Millhone detective novels. UK publisher Pan Books brought those editions out in the early 1990s. The Telegraph contends that Adams’ contributions “only reached the letter ‘E’ before they were discontinued.” However, a post in the Pan Fans Club blog says, “He got as far as ‘J’ before he lost rapport with Pan, according to the book Tom Adams Uncovered.” Adams’ Grafton fronts are similar to those he created for Ballantine’s Chandler editions, insofar as they featured foreground still-lifes (often featuring flowers) juxtaposed against scenes plucked from the stories inside. Two of Adams’ Grafton covers are featured above; the rest can be enjoyed here.

“A Mother’s Warning,” by Frank O’Connor (The Saturday
Evening Post
, October 5, 1967).

“Endless Night,” Part I, by Agatha Christie (The Saturday
Evening Post
, February 24, 1968).

“Endless Night,” Part II, by Agatha Christie (The Saturday
Evening Post
, March 9, 1968).

“The Trust Crisis,” by Ralph Keyes (Oui, November 1976).

After a fortnight spent surveying Adams’ artistry (our posts end today), one thing can be said: Despite the title I chose for this series, his work is not always “grisly,” but it certainly is glorious.

(Hat tip to the Today’s Inspiration Group Facebook page.)

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