Rick Poynor

The Pelican Marx Library

Of the many covers David King created for Penguin Books in the 1970s, his designs for the eight volumes that comprise The Pelican Marx Library are perhaps the most memorable and certainly some of the most “King-like”. The books were published in association with New Left Review under the general editorship of Quintin Hoare, the journal’s managing editor. The aim of the series, as with all Penguin’s Pelican titles, was to make key works of intellectual inquiry available to the broadest audience – students, teachers, scholars and open-minded readers of every persuasion – at a modest cost. The new B format editions were intended to correct the mistakes of translation that had spoilt earlier versions and, as the publisher put it, “to do full justice to the great literary qualities” of Marx’s enduringly influential writing. Grundrisse (Foundations), uncompleted when Marx died, was appearing in English for the first time, as were other shorter texts published in the series. 

Penguin Books, 1973

King worked on the covers for Penguin’s art director David Pelham from 1973 until the final volume of Capital in 1981. Designing pages at The Sunday Times Magazine, he had established a distinctively energetic, journalistically driven way of handling historical images, particularly those relating to the Russian Revolution. His first highly illustrated book about Trotsky – subtitled “a documentary” – had been published by Penguin in 1972. Pelham admired King’s award-winning magazine work and was happy to entrust him with the interpretation of political themes. 

While the choice of photographic portraits of Marx for the main image might seem conventional, King embraces the concept with total conviction and extracts every scintilla of impact. The likenesses could hardly be any bolder, or the thinker’s presence more monumental. In all cases but one, King crops freely into Marx’s face to accentuate the power of his gaze and the vigour and authority of his beard. In these purposely grainy and urgent images, the theorist of communism becomes an implacable graphic object. These books advance political arguments of such import and weight, the covers declare, that they cannot be sidestepped. King locks the titles into the corners, and the typography, using the photo headline typeface Grot 9, is similarly emphatic. It’s not Karl Marx, but MARX

Penguin Books, 1975
Penguin Books, 1973
The Revolutions of 1848, back
Penguin Books, 1973

King’s drive to collect and show Russian material was growing apace in these years. Five of the covers feature his montages of historical documents, which fold around the spine and on to the back cover, as in The Revolutions of 1848 (see above). There was no cover copy until the last book in the series; the inside cover carries a description of the contents. 

Full cover artwork for The First International and After

For The First International and After, King places a fiery cut-out of Marx against an enlarged detail from a membership card for the International Working Men’s Association (often called the First International), founded in 1864 at a meeting in London, with Marx in attendance. Other covers feature handwritten correspondence, fragments of German and American newspapers, book title-pieces, additional photographs of Marx and his family, and on the Early Writings, behind Marx’s shoulder, a portrait of the philosopher Georg Hegel, subject of Marx’s critique. None of these elements is credited on the covers. On Capital Volume 2, King has selected, as a visual counterpoint to Marx, an immense sepia crowd (see below). The surging proletariat overruns the entire back cover, something of a luxury in strictly promotional terms. 

Penguin Books, 1976
Full cover artwork for Capital Volume 1

The books are not shown here in the order they were published, but in the logical editorial order observed by Penguin when listing the titles, starting with Grundrisse. With its full-face, centred picture of Marx, Grundrisse is the obvious anomaly in the group. The fragment of the hammer and sickle glimpsed behind his head is shown more clearly on the back cover inside a red star, a motif King returned to repeatedly. The documentary origin of this graphic image is unclear and this somewhat literal detail suggests, once again, that this cover preceded the others, in conception and design if not in date of publication. With Surveys from Exile and The Revolutions of 1848, both also published in 1973, the series established its relentless visual direction. 

Penguin Books, 1978
Capital Volume 2, back
Penguin Books, 1973

Original artworks courtesy of the Estate of David King