Sunday 22 June 2014

The Incredible Mrs Violet Van Der Elst

Hands up if you've ever heard of Violet Van Der Elst. No, me neither, or at least until earlier this week, when a copy of the luxuriously named Charles Neilson Gattey's biography The Incredible Mrs. Van Der Elst arrived in the shop.

That's quite some cover blurb:

'Back Street Girl to Millionairess, Anti-Hanging Campaigner, Occultist, Business Tycoon, Social Reformer, The Most Colourful Eccentric of the Century.'

(I first read that as 'Occultist Business Tycoon' which is somehow cooler then being separately both an Occultist and a Business Tycoon, but I digress.)

So who was this amazing woman? A quick dip into Gattey's book reveals a driven, if slightly bonkers, lady, who should certainly be better known than she is today.

The daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman, she made her millions from founding a company that made face creams, beauty lotions, soap and especially 'Shavex', the first shaving cream which did not require a brush... She was apparently especially concerned with the advertising of said products, personally overseeing every detail, Steve Jobs style. So she would have approved/rewritten this:

She poured her money into a vigorous campaign against capital punishment. Here she is being unimpressed with the government's then pro-hanging stance.

She was a regular sight outside courtrooms and prisons, stepping out of her chauffeur-driven Rolls to protest, while the planes she'd hired to pull anti-hanging banners flew overhead. Here she is being arrested.

She also liked buying big houses and filling them full of expensive things. Here she is at her house Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire.

The money didn't last, alas. In the end all the houses and possessions (including a library of over 4000 books, with many rare occult volumes) went. Harlaxton is now, bizarrely enough, the British campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana.

She ran for parliament three times unsuccessfully (an excellent way to spend *lots* of money), and also seemed to be quite good at ending up in court for slander (another efficient way to lose large amounts).

She died, penniless, alone and all-but forgotten, in 1966, the year after capital punishment was abolished in Britain.

Gattey's biography, published in 1972, is scarce enough, but even scarcer are the books Violet herself wrote, published by her own Doge Press (another way to dispense of large amounts etc). First up in 1937 was a campaigning tome, On the Gallows, which had a *fantastic* cover, presumably designed to her exacting brief: 

"I want some gallows, and prison doors, and me in a cape! Oh, and Jesus!"

Gattey hardly mentions it in his book, but Mrs Van Der Elst also wrote horror fiction. Her first collection, also in 1937, was The Torture Chamber and Other Stories. It's a really rare book, the text of which has yet to make its way online (it's still in copyright after all). The only reference I can find to it is this:

"Risibly bad weird fiction, self-published by a notorious British eccentric. Most of these stories were subsequently reissued in several post-World War II paperback collections (also self-published). One of the leading British collectors of the period, R. George Medhurst, found her work to be 'crudely written, [with] a peculiarly adolescent flavor.' That about covers it." - Robert Knowlton.

Here's the cover to one of those post-war paperback collections, also vanishingly scarce. And what a cracker it is:

Hats off to Mrs Van Der Elst, I say. She was a one-off.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Vintage Pan Covers That Were

After the Vintage Books Covers That Never Were from a couple of weeks ago, here's a selection of covers from the aforementioned recently arrived shelfload of old Pan paperbacks. They have such a distinctive look, and seeing a bunch of them together only increases their appeal. There are, of course, some hardcore Pan collectors out there, none more hardcore than the curator of this mighty website, which is the (endlessly browsable) last word on the subject.

The covers below include Audrey Hepburn as painted by Sam Peffer (aka Peff), one of the best known Pan artists, particularly remembered for his James Bond work. In the years before Connery, Peff's Bond (complete with the unruly curl and vague resemblance to the American singer Hoagy Carmichael, as stipulated by Fleming in Casino Royale) was arguably *the* public image of 007. You can read more about Peff and see some of his Bond covers here.

There are also some covers by J. Oval, aka Ben Ostrick, who has been mentioned on this blog before...

Sunday 8 June 2014

Baron Munchausen and the Original Brian Robb

This blog is partial to a bit of Baron Munchausen. A previous post dealt with a rather lovely old edition illustrated by Bichard (so lovely, in fact, that it left the shop under the arm of a visiting London Dealer...). This recent arrival is a different, somewhat more modest edition, but the illustrations are equally wonderful in their own way.

They're by Brian Robb, who had an illustrious (sorry) career working on posters and adverts for London Transport and Shell, cartoons for Punch, and book covers and illustrations. He taught at Chelsea Art College (where he became a mentor to Quentin Blake), and ended up as head of illustration at the Royal College of Art. He died in 1979. A class act then.

The coolest part of his cv though is his role in Operation Bertram. He held the brilliant title of Creative Camouflage Officer in the Western Desert of Africa during WW2, helping to deceive Rommel as to the location and size of the allied forces in the run up to El Alamein by camouflaging the eighth army's preparations in the North, and creating a complete dummy force to confuse the aerial photographers in the South. He was a (word of the day alert!) 'Camoufleur' par excellence.

He's referred to in the title of this post as the 'Original' Brian Robb to differentiate him from the current Brian (J.) Robb, the noted writer, who, when he's not popping up on Withnail Books' Facebook page, can be found here critiquing the work of Charlie Chaplin film by film (exactly 100 years after their release), reviewing the latest in sci-fi, fantasy and horror entertainment here, and in your local bookshop as author of acclaimed books about TolkienSteampunk and Philip K. Dick to name but a few.

Anyway, here's a selection of the Original Brian's Baron...

Sunday 1 June 2014

Vintage Book Covers That Never Were

The Little Shop is now home to a shelfload of vintage Pan paperbacks (or will be once I've sorted them out). They're wonderful old things, all sporting covers of the 'they don't make them like that any more' variety. Except, they do. Thanks to some enterprising fans and artists, 'vintage-style pulp paperback covers for books which never had them originally' has become a very entertaining little artistic subgenre.

Speaking of Pan paperbacks, a fellow calling himself Honeypot Designs has repurposed some original art (mostly by Sam Peffer) to create some cracking James Bond covers for titles which were never in Pans of that era:

He's also done some rather good Richard Chopping pastiches. Here's the one for Solo, the most recent Bond novel:

For Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the novelisations by Target Books are possibly even more fondly remembered than the actual programmes themselves (certainly, the special effects were always better), and many talented Whovians have busied themselves providing covers to more recent stories which never got the Target treatment. There's scores of them on the web, but here's a small selection. I especially like the way that some of them change the title of the original episode to something more 'exciting', just like Target used to do:

A final mention has to go to Timothy Anderson, who has created some bang-on pulp covers for Blade Runner and Star Wars, plus poster art for the original trilogy reimagined as spaghetti westerns. Here they all are (and if you want copies for your wall, all these and more are available at his Print Store).