Paperback covers #4: Robert McGinnis


A series looking at some of my favourite
book covers and cover artists.

#4 Robert McGinnis’ paperback covers from the ’60s and ’70s.

There’s something beguiling about Robert McGinnis’ women.

As they stare defiantly at you from one of his paintings they seem to share a collective, enigmatic look. Sometimes that look is beckoning, other times challenging. Often it’s dangerous. And although his women are sexual – at times overtly so – they are rarely submissive or meek. His women are not victims but rather willing participants in whatever sordid misdeeds are consummated under the covers (of the books, that is).

Robert E McGinnis is one of the undisputed greats of paperback cover art, working across a selection of genres including westerns, romance and gothic fiction. But it is for his work illustrating crime fiction and thrillers in the ’60s and ’70s for which he is most fondly remembered. (He also found great success painting movie posters, but I’ve discussed that in another article, click here).

His artistic talent emerged at a very early age and his parents actively encouraged him to develop his drawing skills. After serving as an apprentice with the Walt Disney Studios he studied fine art at Ohio State University where he developed a keen interest in illustration. He then moved to New York and spent most of the ’50s working for a studio producing illustrations for advertising. In 1958 fellow illustrator Mitchell Hooks introduced him to Dell Publishing where he began a career that would stretch over 50 years and comprise well over a thousand book covers. His bold style and strong sense of composition quickly became popular and even best-selling pulp writers such as Brett Halliday (author of the Michael Shayne novels) Donald Westlake (the Parker novels), Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) requested his work – they knew that a McGinnis cover would translate into bigger sales.

A consumate professional McGinnis would routinely submit up to a dozen highly polished rough drafts for every cover he painted. He quickly gained a reputation for easy going professionalism that, combined with his lack of ego, made him a favourite of art directors throughout the publishing industry. But it wasn’t his easy going manner that won him work, but rather the women he painted. They have attitude and sex appeal in equal measure. McGinnis had the ability to imbue them all with a certain unique alluring quality, no mean feat for a illustrator who has painted thousands of portraits over his long career. Even when he painted the same models – feminist campaigner Shere Hite was one of his favourites, see The Savage Salome below – he still found a way to give them their own individual personalities.

In the ’80s McGinnis dominated the romance genre winning awards for his illustrations and in 1993 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Even at the age of 87 he shows no sign of retiring or even slowing down and is currently providing illustrations for the Hard Case Crime book series as well as painting landscapes, a subject close to his heart.

I first discovered McGinnis’ work about 10 years ago while browsing through the Murder One bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road – sadly it’s gone now but in its heyday it was a treasure trove of new and second-hand crime novels, as well as having a decent Science Fiction department in the basement. McGinnis’ artwork immediately jumped out and held my attention. I think it’s the eye-contact that his women maintain with the reader that struck a nerve with me. That bold and direct look just immediately hooked me. Of course, the fact that most of his cover subjects are beautiful semi-naked women certainly didn’t hurt! I also love the design of those novels from the ’60s and ’70s. Check out the typography on The Exotic or Zelda – combined with McGinnis’ artwork they are wonderfully evocative of the era.

I’ve posted some samples of McGinnis covers and illustrations below. My favourite is the cover to Some Women Won’t Wait by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as AA Fair). There’s a real challenge in that woman’s look as well as a sense of mystery. Slab Happy by Richard S. Prather is also a fave – a semi-naked chick with a machine gun sitting on a coffin… what’s not to like.

Over the last few decades paperbacks featuring McGinnis’ artwork has become very collectable. Some can be found on Amazon Marketplace or ebay for a reasonable price while some of the rarer examples are a lot more expensive. Luckily there are plenty of McGinnis fans who are happy to share images from their collections online so discovering more about this talented and prolific artist isn’t difficult. If you’d like to see a master illustrator at work then McGinnis’ work is definitely worth seeking out.

Further reading

It’s ironic that for an artist whose works adorns the covers to thousands of books precious little has actually been printed about him. To my knowledge there have only been two books featuring his work, both of which are now out of print:

Tapestry: The Paintings of Robert McGinnis, edited by Arnie and Cathy Fenner
Underwood Books Inc, 4 Oct 2000, hardcover, 128 pages
I don’t own a copy of this book, and considering new copies are changing hands for over £250 I won’t be getting one soon. However it isn’t hard to find samples of McGinnis’ work online so until this book is reprinted, or a new version is released, surfing the net will have to do.

The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis, compiled Art Scott and Wallace Maynard
Pond Press, April 2001, paperback, 143 pages
Essentially a list of all the paperback books his artwork adorns compiled by two collectors of McGinnis’ work. Don’t let that put you off though as the book features over 250 colour reproductions of McGinnis work, many full-page. I was lucky enough to buy a copy before it went out of print (second hand copies are selling on Amazon for over £80) and it’s a little gem. Printed on good quality white stock and stuffed with examples of the artists work it’s well worth tracking down. Be warned though, it only measures 21cm by 25cm, smaller than A4.

UPDATE: December 2014
The Art of Robert E McGinnis
Titan Books, December 2014, hardback, 176 pages
A new retrospective on the artist, click here for my review.

Further watching

Robert McGinnis: Painting the Last Rose of Summer
1 hour 25 mins, 2008, available on DVD
McGinnis was the subject of a 2008 documentary by Paul Jilbert. It features many samples of his work as well as interviews with the artist and some of his peers. However, it’s only available by mail order online and at $35 (£23) plus P+P it’s a bit steep. UK shoppers be warned: you will also be liable for a Customs fine of anything up to £15.

The ExoticZelda