12 Illustrated Covers of Bill Bryson Books by Neil Gower
One of Gower’s most memorable projects has been making illustrated covers for new and reissue editions of books by the author Bill Bryson. To date Gower has created 14 covers for Bryson’s books—a knockout collection of smart, bright, and stylish designs.
On May 26, Gower will be speaking and showing his work at the Type Directors Club in NYC. His event is titled Jackets, Genius, and Putting the “Art” into Cartography.
Gower shared some of the background to the creation of this historic set of book covers, and also shared a dozen of his favorites.
How did the project come about?
Neil Gower: I had previously designed endpapers and chapter-openers for several of Bill’s books including Down Under and A Short History Of Nearly Everything. While he was writing One Summer, the design director of Transworld in London, Claire Ward asked if I might come up with an idea for the front cover. The book describes the summer of 1927 and its concatenation of momentous events which shaped American and, indeed, world history. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight forms the backbone of the narrative so it seemed right to have that as a central image with various other motifs woven into the period framework. Bill, whom I think it is fair to say hadn’t always been wholly satisfied with his cover designs in the past, loved it. So much so in fact, that when he came to write his subsequent book, The Road To Little Dribbling, he specifically requested that I design its cover. This being a companion volume to his celebrated Notes From A Small Island, marking 20 years since its publication, the publishers (never people to miss a marketing opportunity) asked me to create a design for each so they could be sold as a pair. These proved very successful and I was asked to work my way through the whole back-list.
How were the covers created?
Neil Gower: It was clearly important that these worked as a set based on the look of The Road To Little Dribbling, so my default medium was gouache (although some colored pencil and watercolor crept in along the way). All of my images are hand-painted on paper. I heartily embrace the digital world for distributing and promoting my work but, for me, a life without paint and ink to push around is a barren one indeed.
I produced the first three Bryson covers as single pieces of artwork, with the title and author’s name incorporated into the painting, but on subsequent designs I painted these elements separately from the main image so that the designers at Transworld could create spines and back covers more easily. This has also proved a smart move for foreign editions as it is easier for the translated titles to be inserted.
Bill’s writing is deceptively easy to read and it is important to bear in mind that this does not make it easy to write. There is a great deal of skill involved and, as a general approach across the set, I wanted to reflect this visually. The tone needed to be fairly bright and arresting, but with a bit of depth and artful obliqueness to indicate that while there is erudition and art in the words, it is worn lightly. The concept for each cover is arrived at through panicky reading and careful note-taking. It is vital that it is firmly rooted in the author’s words. It often takes a lot of teasing out, but I always KNOW when the right idea strikes. It is a deep gut-feeling and I swear the reaction is physical: my face tingles and my pelvis hums. It is not always easy to convince the publisher that it my idea is right but in this instance, Bill had the casting vote and they all proved fairly plain sailing. I think we only had to rethink one design along the way. Bill was involved and interested but—to his credit—open to my off-beat suggestions and prepared to trust me.
What was your inspiration for the overall looks of these covers?
Neil Gower: There was no single inspiration. The fact that the title type created such a strong central identity enabled me to draw on a wide range of imagery and influences. Thus the Hopper pastiche for The Lost Continent sits beside the 50s comic book style of Thunderbolt Kid and the very British flying ducks of At Home while still, I hope, retaining a strong identity as a set.
Reading the books thoroughly was absolutely crucial to the success of these. In order to paint with conviction I had to know there was a) a strong visual idea and b) a layer of humor or a visual reference that would become clear to the attentive reader as he/she absorbed the text. My policy is never to underestimate the visual awareness or intelligence of the book-buyer.
It is probably also worth noting the difference that emerges between creating the cover for a newly-published book and one for a book that has already had several jackets. For example, it was hard to think about a classic such as The Lost Continent without being distracted by its previous covers. (Interesting to note that when the Hopper painting caught my eye: on one level, it had nothing to do with the title; on another, it had everything to do with it. The soul of The Lost Continent was right there). With a new title, Bill sends me one chapter at a time, ink still wet, which is always quite a thrill. This makes the design process slightly different. While there are no previous covers to distract me, there is less of a sense of the book as a finite entity—it is more a case of watching it emerge and develop before one’s eyes. More of a glimpse beneath the hood.