Sixties Mercier paperbacks
May 9, 2010
A Munster Twilight, Daniel Corkery, Mercier Press (1963). Cover design: uncredited
Islanders, Peadar O’Donnell, Mercier Press (1965). Cover design: uncredited
Days of Fear, Frank Gallagher, Mercier Press (1967). Cover design: John Skelton
Irish Short Stories, Seamus O’Kelly, Mercier Press (1969). Cover design: uncredited
It may seem strange that I haven’t mentioned Mercier Press covers before. This is not because I don’t deem them of merit or that I was not aware of them but quite the opposite. The Mercier Paperbacks of the 1960s were ubiquitous in Irish homes and it can be hard to see afresh something which is very familiar.
The books were designed to work as a series – always in two colour, black and a spot colour which changed from book to book. The format and back cover layout remained the same on each book. Illustration, in both pen & ink and brush & ink, was the mainstay of the covers although photography crept in as the decade came to a close. I hope that I am not overstating it to say that the Mercier Paperback covers enjoy a position in the Irish psyche akin to that of Penguin covers for British readers.
The artist John Skelton (1925-2009) was Mercier’s main cover designer – he worked as an art director and book illustrator before concentrating full-time on painting in 1975. The line work in his My Left Foot cover has a Ben Shan feel while his brush and ink illustration for Days of Fear is more expressionistic.
John M. Feehan, the founder of Mercier, mentions the design process in his book An Irish Publisher and his World (1969):
The next problem is the jacket of the book. A set of proofs goes to the artist who has been selected to do the job and in due course he will submit three different designs. The publisher has to decide which of these is the most suitable. He will probably call in the author to look at them and give his opinion, although he, as publisher, will naturally have the last word. Aesthetic must be balanced against commercial considerations: the two are not necessarily opposed. … Certainly, an effective jacket has become more and more important as a weapon in the struggle to sell a book.
Perhaps the use of militaristic language when describing the selling of books can be explained by Feehan’s time as a Captain in the Irish Army before he career as a publisher.