The Reading Room

Mike Charlton- Artist

A look at the work of artist Mike Charlton…

One of my favourite parts of my library is my collection of books published by The Companion Book Club. These editions were generally printed in the same year as the first edition at a cheaper price.  Over the years I have witnessed a rather snobbish attitude to these and other Book Club editions by book collectors and dealers which I always felt was a mistake. In their day these cheaper options were very popular with those who could not afford the new first edition and years later, as those first printings became collectable and even more expensive so the gap between those who could afford the original and those who couldn’t grew ever wider. Few of us are in a position to buy an early Ian Fleming novel at today’s prices but many still wish to own his books and this is where Book Club editions come into their own.  They allow fans of authors whose early works are beyond most people’s reach to build a collection of hardback editions which are enormously satisfying and, quite often, more attractive to look at.

There are many examples where the Book Club dust jacket artwork is considerably better than the first edition, particularly where certain famous authors are concerned. Their publishers knew the books would sell regardless of how they looked so they cut costs by eschewing the artist for a plain and frankly boring alternative. The Companion Book Club early editions do little to appeal to the artistic minded but the 1960s reprints really came into their own with some truly outstanding covers.

Mike Alan Charlton (1923-2998) who was an artist for advertising agencies in the 1050s was commissioned to produce a number of covers for the Companion Book Club and his work ranks amongst my favourite of all. He studied art at Poole School of Art before moving to the Edinburgh College of Art. His career was greatly curtailed by military service in India and Ceylon. He went on to produce covers for a huge amount of books for publishers ranging from Hodder & Stoughton, Heinemann, The Bodley Head, Longman, Chatto & Windus and many more.

Here, though, I want to concentrate on his work for The Companion Book Club, his wonderful covers for Helen MacInnes, Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes and Simenon amongst my very favourites. The style,  is very similar to the artists who illustrated for magazines and periodicals throughout that decade. Charlton seemed to excel at the thriller books, many of the books in the series were romance novels with covers reminiscent of the artwork for Women’s Own and similar but Charlton managed to capture the spirit of romance within the book alongside an  element of danger. For many years Charlton also created pieces for The Readers Digest Condensed Books but the bulk of his work was for children’s novels. Those of a certain age will doubtless recall with great fondness the wonderful illustrations on the covers and throughout the books of their favourite children’s books. There was, like the covers featured here, a certain charm about them that sadly came to an end as the decade drew to a close and publishers began using photographers in place of artists.

So here’s to Mike Charlton and all of the other fine artists who made collecting 1960s book editions such a pleasure.

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