When it comes to covers, publishers are notoriously promiscuous and inconsistent. Penguin have set records in this respect that are bound to stand the test of time. I’ve had a lot of fun compiling the following (no doubt far from complete) collections of covers; most of them seem to have been extremely selective in the first place. I have arranged them roughly in chronological order. I stress “roughly” because it is very difficult, if not indeed impossible, to determine when they were used for the first time and for how long they remained in use. The years given for each set are by necessity approximate.
1st series: 1940s/50s.
The classic Penguin design: simplicity and elegance. Plain but not ugly, quite unlike many monstrosities from later years.
2nd series: 1950s.
Are these supposed to be improvements?
3rd series: 1963-?
Simple but, when you hold the book in your hand, surprisingly handsome design.
4th series: 1967-?
Audaciously garish and misleading covers. Up at the Villa and especially Catalina are utterly preposterous.
5th series: late 1960s to 1980s?
Horrendous collages! I wonder if Birdsall and Peccinotti, who are credited as cover designers, ever read a single word of the books they marred. As luck would have it, the ugliest series is also the longest.
6th series: 1970/80s?
Inferior versions of the covers in the next series.
7th series: 1990s.
Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. Great idea to put Graham Sutherland’s justly famous portrait and Gerald Kelly’s much more obscure (but, in my opinion, equally fine) work on the covers of Maugham’s two most personal books, The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook respectively. The rest is appallingly nondescript.
8th series: 1990/2000s.
Penguin Classics. It’s amusing to see an indifferent potboiler like The Magician included here, while The Painted Veil, Cakes and Ale and The Razor’s Edge are omitted. The ways of publishers are inscrutable. And both covers of Of Human Bondage are unspeakable!