This October, a staple for any culturally-astute publication reader, London Review of Books, celebrates its 40th anniversary. Starting in 1979, over decades the LRB has featured not only the work of literary giants – such as Alan Bennett, Kazuo Ishiguro and Susan Sontag, to name a few – but artists too, with a wealth of iconic covers. As a result, its fascinating archive not only marks several significant literary moments of the past 40 years but comments on artistic and graphic trends and interpretations of the cultural, political landscape too.
A publication which exudes careful thought and criticism through its writing, LRB covers have always been given a similar level of attention to the words that lie beneath them. Primarily a black and white publication inside, the cover offers the only opportunity to inject colour to its output. In turn, the decision of what would sit atop its contents was one that involved its wider team, with its legendary editor and co-founder Mary-Kay Wilmers often making edits and giving feedback on the tones and shades used. It is no surprise to hear that Peter Campbell – the first artist to contribute an LRB cover, who then became a resident designer and art critic at the publication until his death in 2011 – was often asked to submit several versions of the 400 covers he produced during his career.
Another artist who has been close to the publication since 2012 is Anne Rothenstein. Brought on board after Mary-Kay Wilmers saw her work as a fine art painter, Anne’s first cover for the LRB was also her first experience of creating any sort of graphic work, “but I love drawing and collage and began to find my way,” she tells It’s Nice That.
Working with the publication ever since, Anne’s cover designs offer a welcome break in her artistic output, with her noting how “it gives me a fantastic opportunity to play around with other ideas.” She continues: “It has begun to be an almost complementary practice. Painting is a mysterious process for me, open-ended, without boundaries. In contrast, I love the restrictions of working on the covers, the confines of size and having to think about space for text etc. But above all, and what is particularly unique I think, is that the LRB offers the cover artists (there are several of us) complete freedom.” Rather than sending Anne a strict brief to interpret, the artist notes that “very rarely is it a question of illustrating a topic,” she continues. “On the whole, I play with images and send them off and they use them or not. Of course, whatever is going on in the news might have an unconscious bearing on the work.”
On the topic of the publication’s anniversary, Anne pinpoints two of her favourite covers, both tied to news stories. First, is the LRB’s issue dedicated to the Grenfell Tower, an edition centred on Andrew O’Hagan’s seven-part piece, The Tower. Occupying the entire contents of the issue, “it was the first time I had been asked for something specific,” Anne explains. “I live within sight of the tower, it had such a huge impact and the impact was just there in my mind’s eye.” Another is an issue which coincided with the announcement of the European referendum, the What Have We Done issue. Anne’s piece illustrates a figure with a hand raised to his forehead insinuating a certain amount of stress about the political situation. Not originally a piece created with the LRB in mind, “it was just a drawing of general despair, taken originally, ironically, from a photo of an immigrant sitting bundled in the back of a van, and it suited the moment perfectly.”
Overall, Anne notes her time working with London Review of Books as not really a job at all, “just a wonderful opportunity to exercise different creative muscles,” she concludes. “They seem a tremendously dedicated, good-humoured, clever bunch.” Here’s to another 40 years!
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