The art of 'British' pulp fiction

A group of mainly Italian illustrators produced increasingly lurid cover art for the novels of British crime authors and others. But how do we view it now?

The pulp cover art style for books and magazines is often seen as something inherently American. 'Gals' in danger, vulnerable and submissive, caught between earnestly macho (white, male) heroes and dastardly villains (who were often a bit 'foreign looking'). Or perhaps already murdered by the latter to drive the former to action. A promise of sex and violence if only you'd part with 25c, or 10c for a magazine.

Growing in popularity from the 1920s onwards in the US, they arrived in the UK not long before US troops in the Second World War as direct copies of their US counterparts - I could call them crude copies, but that's a word you could easily apply to the desperately-attention-seeking American originals too. It was later though, in the 50s and 60s that the form was adapted and updated for British crime writers (and some imports too).

A new exhibition at the Lever Gallery in London brings together over 40 pulp works by six illustrators working in London in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly based around the bohemian hub of the 'Swinging Sixties', Soho. 

The artworks very much follow the tropes of earlier American pulp, but the fashions, hair and depictions of physical form have moved onto what we associate with the 60s - the men less beefcake and more dapper, the women lithe rather than voluptuous.

These works lived in a time between when the price of producing full-colour covers of artworks became low enough that becoming more and more lurid was seen as the only way to stand out on bookshop shelves - these covers essentially being the clickbait of its time. They remained popular - or at least effective - into the 1970s, when publishers discovered that photography worked even better, seeming more modern and real to book buyers.

The artworks subjects are usually crime and war - horror, it appears, had it own set of artists. But the style worked so well at selling books that it was applied to the works of authors writing in other genres and forms. This fondly-if-little remembered novel, Lillian Halegua's The Pearl Bastard, is a short sparse, feminist novel that has nothing in common with pulp crime fiction.

So how should we view these now? Should we scorn them as products of culture of misogyny, ignore them as outdated or enjoy them 'ironically'? Or perhaps we should view them as what they are, crudely hewn swiftly to formulaic briefs - and ripe for reinvention by others (as Amazon did with classic pulp in its adaptation of Joe R Landsdale's Hap and Leonard).

Of the six illustrators featured, four were Italian. The best known is Renato Fratini, who came to London in 1953 to produce film posters - creating the iconic poster for From Russia With Love in 1963. Works by Renato on show at Lever include this for Peter Cheney's Lady Behave, plus The Pearl Bastard and Alasdair Maclean's casino ship-set The Golden Rendezvous shown before.

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This artwork for Richard Condon's The Oldest Confession is less 'pulpy' than other covers.

It was created by Gianluigi 'Didi' Coppola, who also drew comic strips like Billy the Kid for The Sun.

Giorgio De Gaspari worked from Italy for a number of British publishers. This cover was for a Second World War story called Above Suspision.

This artwork for Wages of Fear is based on a still from the 1953 French film that's also used on the cover the Criterion Edition of it. It was drawn and painted by Pino Dell Orco, another Italian painter who came to London after the D’Ami studio in Milan broke up in 1960.

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This painting by Association of Illustrators co-founder Michael Johnson combines the overt sexuality and voyeurism of pulp with a more psychedelic colour palette. He also painted the more traditionally pulp cover of Alan Williams's Tale of the Lazy Dog at the top of this story.

Ian Robertson painted this cover of Andrew Gavre's Murder in Moscow.

All images are copyright Lever Gallery.