Writer by day, artist by night: Harland Miller truly embraces any medium he turns his attention to. The British artist-cum-author is best known for his paintings and prints inspired by vintage Penguin book covers. Here are 10 facts about Miller’s witty reimaginings of these iconic literary objects.
Since the early 2000s, Harland Miller has created a large body of work inspired by vintage book covers published by Penguin. By reimagining the book covers on a grand scale, Miller continues to play with our visual imagination of these iconic literary objects. His Penguin cover works are not only still lifes, but are often imbued with Miller’s characteristic wry humour, as he often gives these ‘books’ tongue-in-cheek titles like This Is Where It’s Fuckin At: At Least It Used To Be.
By playing with our visual memories of Penguin classics, a household item for many literary fanatics, Miller seeks to blur the lines between literature and art, and high and low art culture. The once recognisable Penguin book cover is at once subverted to become witty and sometimes grotesque.
By packaging his Penguin Prints in dust jackets reminiscent of the books that inspired this body of work, Miller makes his prints collectable items that entice any lover of all things vintage. Miller’s deep-set fascination with all things retro, from music to poetry, mirrors the contemporary revival of vinyl record players, film cameras and vintage clothing. Through his reinvention of the Penguin Classics, Miller proves that sometimes the old ways are the best, and draws on the beautiful phenomenon of nostalgia.
Not only has Miller risen to fame as a celebrated visual artist, but he has also received critical acclaim for his written work. His debut novel, Arthur, Stick to Thirty, was published in 2000 and follows his typical themes of the rock and roll lifestyle. In 2002, Miller was elected as the Writer in Residence at the ICA, where he continued to develop his multidisciplinary practice across the arts. The Penguin Prints are the manifestation of this multifaceted approach to art and culture.
Miller’s Penguin Prints and paintings have become desirable investments for art collectors and book enthusiasts alike. Among his star-studded clientele are major icons of pop music like Sir Elton John, Ed Sheeran, and George Michael to name a few.
Perhaps the greatest inspiration on Miller’s oeuvre are the eerie and mysterious novels and poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Constantly inspired by his haunting use of words and his troubled personal life, Miller has devoted entire exhibitions and several Penguin Prints to his favourite author.
Pelican Books is the umbrella under which Penguin publishes non-fiction works on academic and political topics. Even the realm of non-fiction is not exempt from Miller’s satire, as we see in his cover work York So Good They Named It Once. Within this work Miller pokes fun at the city he grew up in, and turns the book cover almost into a landscape, with the pelican flying across the blue border of the work.
Just like a book which can change your outlook on the world, Miller has recently used his Penguin Prints to support NHS workers during the Coronavirus pandemic. His Who Cares Wins print was released as a large edition of 250, and Miller chose “NHS blue” for the borders of his cover to signal his support of healthcare workers. The sale of these particular Penguin Prints raised a total of £1.25 million for NHS workers.
In his elevation of the everyday object of the Penguin book cover to fine art status, Miller displays the influence of Pop on his art. Coupled with his Rothko-inspired application of colour and mark-making, the Penguin Prints are a prime example of the lingering influence of Pop on contemporary artists. While Penguin books themselves are a rather mundane consumable object, the act of reading itself is a luxury for many: something made manifest by Miller’s grand use of scale in his original paintings.
This particular work is Miller’s priciest Penguin book cover painting to date, fetching £325,000 at a Christie’s auction in London. With its wry title, the colossal selling price of the work proves that Miller’s humour is his most unique selling point.