Tuesday, 5 August 2008

King Poison

The recent talk of suspicious things growing out of trees had me reaching for Poisonous Fungi by John Ramsbottom. Illustrated by Rose Ellenby, this is a King Penguin book, the first foray by the publisher into hardbacks. Designed specifically as a series of beautifully illustrated and collectable books, they first appeared in November 1939. Much care went into their production under the editorship of Niklaus Pevsner and the technical supervision of R.B.Fishenden. The latter's high standards never dropped, even in wartime. King Penguins continued for twenty years, and I include amongst my favourites Life in an English Village illustrated by Edward Bawden, Romney Marsh by John Piper and one of the very best The Isle of Wight by Barbara Jones. But the cover design for Poisonous Fungi is in a class of its own. The companion volume Edible Fungi is so mild by comparison, which is as it should be, a discreet repeat pattern of Boletus versipellis jumping up out of a frying pan. But if you saw anything that even remotely resembled one of Rose Ellenby's sickly-coloured specimens from Poisonous Fungi in a woodland clearing you would run away holding a handkerchief over your face. Even the cover, with its virulent acid colours, is shouting out "Danger! Don't Eat This Book!".


Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter, your blog is a breath of civilization in an uncivilized world.

I'm sure I recall hearing someone tell the story on the wireless about how Mr Lane of Penguin had Pevsner round and sat him down and said: 'Right, if you could do any books you want, what would they be?' Herr Professor Doktor, if I remember rightly, immediately came up with proposals for The Buildings of England, the vast and awesome volumes of the Pelican History of Art, and King Penguins. Lane then took the wind out of Pevsner's sails by replying, in effect: 'Right, we'll do the lot.' And they did. Publishing was so simple once.

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