The return of Father Brown

This month sees another fine set of reissues from Penguin – GK Chesterton’s Father Brown series, designed in-house by Matthew Young with a nod to the influential work of Romek Marber

This month sees another fine set of reissues from Penguin – GK Chesterton’s Father Brown series, designed in-house by Matthew Young with a nod to the influential work of Romek Marber

In 2010, Young was chosen as one of CR’s graduates to watch and since then he has been working away as a book cover designer for Penguin and an animator. His latest project was to produce the covers for a new set of five editions of GK Chesteron’s Father Brown crime novels.

Young says that initially the design approach had two potentially routes: one was to incorporate Magritte paintings into the workl, while the other was a more graphic approach with “a healthy dose of inspiration from Romek Marber’s iconic covers for Penguin in the 1960s”.

“Chesterton’s Father Brown stories have always, in my opinion, been packaged somewhat unfairly,” says Young. “There’s always so much emphasis on the fact that he’s a priest, it’s all dog-collars and bibles – and it makes the books look very old-fashioned, safe, twee, and a bit boring, when in fact they’re full of wit and suspense and character.

“And yes he’s a priest, and yes that’s why he makes such an unlikely (but brilliant) detective, but there’s so much more to these stories that often doesn’t get represented.”

Two Father Brown covers design by Romek Marber

When Young researched the series, he says that two particularly covers jumped out – The Innocence of Father Brown and The Incredulity of Father Brown (above), both designed by Romek Marber for Penguin in the early 60s.

“They’re the only covers I’ve seen that really suggest some of the mystery and the suspense of these stories,” Young says, “and they do so in such a striking way, with a reduced colour palette and bold symbolic illustrations.”

“There’s a great quote from Marber – talking about designing these books – of how Father Brown ‘gets straight to the nub of the case and always gets his man’. And that’s what we wanted to communicate with these new editions.

“There’s always a fine line when taking inspiration from a classic cover design like this – you want to pay a respectful nod to Penguin’s history, and to Romek’s iconic designs, but as a designer you also want to put your own mark on things, and to re-invent these covers for today’s audience.”

Two of the new covers actually re-work original elements from Marber’s designs. The Innocence of Father Brown features the coiling thread from the original cover and The Wisdom of Father Brown makes use of the Marber figure casting a long shadow.

“Taking these two visual elements as my main starting point, I worked all the covers up using the same basic principles,” says Young. “Each cover must only use two colours, feature a figure that represents Father Brown, and use simple, bold, graphic shapes and patterns to symbolise a chase, a journey, a mystery.”

“On each cover Father Brown is deliberately isolated to give the sense that he is an outsider; it’s him against the odds, following an unlikely trail and methodically piecing the clues together. And I didn’t want to dictate exactly what Father Brown looks like – I’d rather this was left open to the reader’s interpretation, so the figures are almost silhouettes, with just enough detail to give him some form, to maybe suggest his build or his shabby robes, but without giving too much away.”

The grid for the typography derives from a by-product of a bigger project to re-design the Penguin Popular Classics, Young explains. “That project never saw the light of day,” he says, “but some small aspects of the designs do live on in these new covers.”

The finished books are each printed in just two colours – one Pantone plus black – on a cream uncoated paper stock. As with the new ‘restored’ edition of A Clockwork Orange, which Barnbrook recently designed, the Chesterton books are in ‘A-format’, the same size as the original Penguin paperbacks.

“Hopefully the books have a certain Penguin charm about them,” Young adds, “whilst also being attractive little objects in their own right.”

Art director: Jim Stoddart. The Father Brown series will be available from Penguin Classics from January 2 next year; £6.99 each. Matthew Young’s book cover work is at

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