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A Pickwick paper trail

21st May 2015 - Matt Broughton


Stephen Jarvis' engrossing debut novel, Death and Mr Pickwick (half-price at Foyles until end of June), tells the remarkable and still much disputed story of the publication of Charles Dicken's much-loved The Pickwick Papers.


Matt Brougton, Senior Designer at Vintage Books, reveals how he went about creating the jacket design for a novel that will delight any fan of Victorian fiction.


  • Read our interview with Stephen Jarvis, in which he discusses what led him to believe that Dickens tried to bury Seymour's contribution, why The Pickwick Papers was the Victorian era's Big Brother and why it should still be regarded at Dickens' finest achievement


Stephen Jarvis’s enthralling first novel traces the genesis, and subsequent history of Charles Dickens’ much-loved
The Pickwick Papers. He offers a damning indictment of how an ambitious young writer expropriated another man’s ideas and then engaged in an elaborate cover-up of the true origin of The Pickwick Papers. So how do we go about creating a book cover for such a story?

The initial discussions between editor/author and designer revolved around the question should the jacket be simple or complex?


Pickwick 01


Complex and colourful could convey that Death and Mr Pickwick is 'vast', brimming with all sorts of characters and situations. An early idea from the author suggested we could illustrate a crowd gathered outside a nineteenth-century print-shop window, with the prints on display all being miniaturised versions of Seymour pictures. The print-shop window scene was indeed used in pictures drawn by some of Seymour’s fellow-artists, although not by Seymour himself.

The simple jacket approach would aim at summarising the book in a single image – perhaps the 'Dying Clown' motif – a Seymour drawing for Dickens that not only lies at the heart of Seymour’s suicide, but could also be a symbol of Seymour himself. Another possibility was 'Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club' – considered the Mona Lisa of book illustrations – which focussed on the eponymous hero himself.


Pickwick 02

We decided to take the simple route and save Seymour’s illustrations for the endpapers. In which case we needed a device that would set the book apart from historical study, and suggest there was more to the underlying story. I figured that if we used the image of Pickwick addressing the club but zoomed in, making him the centre of attention, we could isolate this crop adopting such a graphic device. At first I considered Pickwick’s pince-nez as the symbolic solution, and then the possibility of creating a structure around period typography. However, given this was a book about an illustrator, a writer and the tensions between, the ink spatter became the obvious answer.


Pickwick 03


After a number of variations, the chosen cover was the version far-right:


Pickwick 04


So who conceived The Pickwick Papers?

Was Pickwick a creation of the artist Robert Seymour or a young journalist using the pen-name Boz? – and was it the ink of the artist or that of the writer?


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