The Art of Penguin Science Fiction examines the history and cover art of science fiction published by Penguin Books.

Penguin Books was launched in 1935 as a paperback imprint of The Bodley Head and became a separate company early the following year. The books were extremely popular and instantly recognisable by their eye-catching covers, which featured two horizontal bands of colour – orange for fiction, green for crime, blue for biography – separated by a third, white band containing the title and author's name. This simple yet striking cover design gave the books a modern look and remained in use for many years, eventually acquiring iconic status as a design classic.

Royal Mail, British Design Classics, 2009

This status was reaffirmed in 2009 when the UK's Royal Mail issued a set of commemorative stamps featuring ten British design classics, for among the designs that appeared on the stamps were a double-decker bus, a telephone box and a 1930s Penguin book.

So Penguin Books and its banded covers has played its part in our cultural heritage, and the books themselves have influenced generations of readers. In the 1950s the covers changed to vertical bands and illustrated covers were introduced, followed by a radically new cover design, the Marber grid, in the early 1960s. Then came the launch of a science fiction series featuring abstract and surrealist cover art by Max Ernst, Paul Klee, René Magritte and others, a pairing of sf and modern art that is all the more intriguing for the subtle and often ingenious connections between each book's cover painting and its contents.

In the 1970s Penguin sf turned to covers inspired by Op Art and Pop Art, while the Penguin Modern Classics linked sf with paintings by Léger, Malevich and Edward
Hopper. But to put these developments in perspective it is best to begin in
the 1930s, for these early covers, now celebrated on a stamp, are
themselves regarded as pocket-sized artworks.

Further Reading


William Emrys Williams. The Penguin Story. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956

Linda Lloyd Jones and Jeremy Aynsley. Fifty Penguin Years. London: Penguin, 1985

Phil Baines. Penguin by Design: A Cover Story. London: Penguin, 2005

Steve Hare and Phil Baines (Eds). Penguin by Designers. London: PCS, 2007

Science Fiction

Kingsley Amis. New Maps of Hell. Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1960 >>

Brian Aldiss. Billion Year Spree. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973

Janet Sacks (Ed). Visions of the Future. New English Library, 1976

Edward James. Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 1994

John Clute. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Dorling Kindersley, 1995

Jimi Hendrix reading 'Penguin Science Fiction'

Photograph by Petra Niemeier of Jimi Hendrix in 1967 reading Penguin Science Fiction >>

Penguin Science Fiction

Aune R Butt. 'The Artist in Science Fiction.' Science Fiction Monthly, September 1974 >>

James Pardey. 'The Art of Penguin Science Fiction.' The Penguin Collector, December 2008 >>

—. 'The Art of More Penguin Science Fiction.' The Penguin Collector, June 2009 >>

—. 'The Art of Yet More Penguin Science Fiction.' The Penguin Collector, December 2009 >>

—. 'Landscapes From a Dream.' Vector, Autumn 2009 >>

—. 'Penguin Book Covers: Franco Grignani.' Creative Review, April 2011 >>