Shirley Tucker, Faber and The Bell Jar

When Faber & Faber picked up Silvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in 1966, in-house designer Shirley Tucker was given the chance to design its cover – and she came up with the perfect image. In a series of interviews filmed at the publisher’s last year, Tucker discusses this work and her time at Faber

In the interviews, which Faber has uploaded to its extensive Vimeo channel for the 50th anniversary of the book, the designer talks about how she came up with the design for Plath’s first and only novel. First published in 1963, originally under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar initially appeared in the UK and only saw a US release in 1971.

Shirley Tucker at work in the Faber & Faber offices

The story centres on young writer Esther Greenwood, her search for identity and her descent into depression, which is at one point likened to being underneath a glass ‘bell jar’.

Like Plath, Greenwood endures electroconvulsive therapy as part of her treatment – this method of therapy, Greenwood’s ongoing mental state, and the notion of the bell jar are all neatly captured in Tucker’s single cover graphic. Plath took her own life one month after the book was published in Britain.

In the interviews, Tucker discusses the process of making the cover (and others), how Faber founder TS Eliot would come and go – “he worked office hours” – and what the formidable art director Berthold Wolpe was like to work with. Faber also has a great Flickr collection of some classic cover designs from the period.

In the first clip, the designer (who worked at the publishing house from the late 1950s until the 1980s), discusses her approach to the Plath cover as a graphic designer and letterer, and how she was never credited with the design until recently:

Tucker also discusses some of her favourite Faber covers:

And here sheds light on the Faber design process, using an example of a cover for an edition of the writings of David Jones which was carried out by Wolpe and passed on to John Roberts Press of Clerkenwell. She also addresses how the design for The Bell Jar was created, and the coming of the “heavenly” Rapidograph pen:

In this next clip, Tucker discusses working with the then unheard-of PD James, creating the cover for her first book, Shroud for a Nightingale, and the presence of Faber founder, TS Eliot:

Finally, Tucker recalls her first meeting with Berthold Wolpe, Faber’s art director and the designer of the Albertus typeface:

There’s also a new edition of The Bell Jar, published by Faber, as part of its 50th anniverary. Go here for a substantial list of cover designs for the book that have appeared (in several languages) since 1963.

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