Saturday, 3 January 2015

A salute to Sam Peffer, the greatest paperback cover illustrator of the 20th Century, who died in 2014

When, in the early days of this blog, I wrote about my love of old Pan paperback covers (here), I hadn't heard of Sam Peffer, the artist responsible for many of the publisher's greatest covers - and most of my favourites - in the late '50s/early '60s. To be honest, I didn't hear of him until well after his death at the age of 93, in March 2014 - sad, considering the effect his vibrant, sometimes lurid, film-postery covers had on my imagination when I haunted second-hand bookshops in my early teens. As I've found since I started collecting old Pan paperbacks in the early Noughties, Peffer's covers have lasted much better than many of the books they contained - if only Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Cautious Coquette were a quarter as enthralling as Peffer's brilliantly moody noir illustration for it.

Having left school at 13, Islington-born Sam Peffer became an illustrator in the movie business. After serving in the Royal Navy during the war, he returned to illustrating and, studying at Hornsey Art College in the evenings, rose to become art director for Pearl & Dean before going freelance in 1954, after which he did hundreds of Pan covers, earning about £40 for each one (his highest-ever fee was £45). He is probably best remembered for his glorious James Bond covers, but I'm saving those for another post. Here, I'll concentrate on his non-Bond work, which someone really should commemorate in a glossy, expensive book, so I could buy and prominently display it:

Unfortunately, Jonathan Latimer's novels were written in cod-tough guy American, and are consequently unreadable. Crime and violence were Sam Peffer's natural milieu, but his style worked just as well for less violent fare: 

While his hallmark was the depiction of the human face and form, preferably in extremis, he was just as adept at subtler, more graphic covers :

But, ultimately, dramatic humanity remained his stock-in-trade:

War was another of his specialities:

But (for me at least) it's his startlingly bold criminal work that defines him, as well as a penchant for mustardy yellow and emerald green:

Not bad at £40 a pop, I reckon. As the style of paperback covers changed in the '60s, with more emphasis on photographs and pure graphic design, so Peffer's income from book publishing waned, and he moved back to film posters and then home video sleeves for most of the rest of his working life. There's an excellent site dedicated to his work, The Art of Peff : In memory of Sam Peffer 1921-2014, which can be found here: it hard to navigate, but if you follow the link, the other pages featuring his Pan covers are available in the right-hand-column - much of his later work was for sleazy sex films, and is probably best avoided.

I'll leave you with one last splendid cover from Sam Peffer's glory days:


  1. I remember some of these Pan titles, Ross Macdonald's in particular and the portmanteau - authored Ellery Queen books.

    If I recall correctly, Pan also published John D Macdonald's Travis McGee books,which I enjoyed - but not quite as much as an Australian expat friend who named his son Travis and registered his sailing boat as "The Busted Flush."

    1. I sometimes think there were too many American crime writers called MacDonald! John D. was indeed a Pan author (but not exclusively) and (as so often) they did a really good job on his covers: I suspect the frequent appearance of colours in his book titles helped.