The missing Modern Masters

For his forthcoming show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London, artist Jamie Shovlin has reimagined 17 covers for titles from the Fontana Modern Masters series (1970-84) which were scheduled to appear but never did

Jamie Shovlin, Mann by Lionel Trilling (Variation 1A)

For his forthcoming show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London, artist Jamie Shovlin has reimagined 17 covers for titles from the Fontana Modern Masters series (1970-84) which were scheduled to appear but never did…

Fontana Modern Masters was a series of pocket guides on writers, philosophers and cultural theorists whose ideas had helped to form the intellectual landscape of the 20th century. The first five titles came out in 1970, published by Fontana Books, the paperback imprint of William Collins & Co. The series editor was the academic and critic, Frank Kermode.

Jamie Shovlin, Arendt by David Watson (Variation 1)

For a thorough examination of the design of this striking collection, there’s no better place than James Pardey’s mini-site dedicated to the work at As Pardey reveals, the Modern Masters collection was published in six separate sets, each with its own distinctive cover design template. These covers, he writes, “did not just catch the eye, they hijacked it.”

Jamie Shovlin, Matisse by David Sylvester (Variation 1A)

On his site, Pardey charts the influence of artist Victor Vaserely‘s Op Art work on the geometric art of Oliver Bevan, who in turn was commissioned to create the paintings used on the initial run of Fontana covers. The publisher’s art director, John Constable, had been struck by an interactive tabletop piece shown by Bevan at the Grabowski gallery in 1969, where tiles could be arranged in different combinations.

Bevan produced his Cascade patterning device for the first ten FMM covers; a second set of nine in 1971-73; and a third set of eight in 1973-74. Under Mike Dempsey’s art direction from the mid-70s (and Patrick Mortimer’s into the 1980s), artist James Lowe created three series of cover designs based on various iterations of triangles, square and circles.

Jamie Shovlin, Foucault by J.G. Merquior (Variation 1B)

Jamie Shovlin, Berlin by John Gray (Variation 1)

Since 2003 Shovlin has been using the Fontana series in his art, which also acknowledges his own interest in graphic design and typography. For his new series of paintings he devised a system set out in the form of a colour wheel (shown below), which enabled him to generate the colours and patterns for each of these unpublished FMM books, and suggest how they might have looked.

Jamie Shovlin, Benjamin by Samuel Weber (Variation 3)

According to the gallery, he used a points system to score the ‘Modern Master’ of each book. “Criteria such as the number of pages in their book, the number of other Modern Master texts cited in the book bibliography, whether they were a Nobel Prize winner and so on were counted by Shovlin and recorded in the colour wheel,” says HoV. “The total score could be interpreted to indicate the success, popularity or intellectual weight of each Modern Master but also, working from the covers of existing books, the colour and composition of the new cover designs.”

Jamie Shovlin, Colour wheel

The outcome of this system created many potential designs for each cover; but only one was selected by Shovlin as the primary design. “The failed designs were incorporated into the paintings as each canvas was painted and repainted, burying the variations under the selected design that sits at the front of the picture,” say the gallery. “A trace of each preceding layer is retained through the various spills, drips, lines and overlaps evident in the final surface of each painting, hinting at the intrinsic flaws in the artist’s self-devised system and the value of classificatory systems in everyday life.”

Shovlin’s paintings will be showing at the Haunch of Venison gallery, 103 New Bond Street, London W1K 5ES from April 18 until May 26. More details at the gallery’s site, Pardey’s site on the design history of the Fontana Modern Masters series is at

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