Harland Miller is a renowned painter best known for his humorous recreations of the iconic Penguin book covers. Miller’s creative horizon, however, is much broader than these Penguin prints, and the artist’s creative output spans art and literature.
From paintings to prints, sculptures to mixed media artworks, novels to short stories, Miller’s work consistently explores the relationship between word and image. This A-Z Guide of Harland Miller shines a light on the genius of this multi-faceted artist.
As well as being a critically acclaimed artist, Harland Miller is also a successful author. Miller wrote his first novel, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, in 2000. Published by Fourth Estate, the novel has been well received and described as being “achingly funny”. The book captures Miller’s surreal and dark sense of humour which also shines through in the artist’s artworks.
Boston, Massachusetts, is where Miller did a writer’s residency, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2002. Miller spent his time there curating workshops and programming a number of events, including an entire season dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe which explored the influence and legacy of the celebrated 19th century British author.
Miller studied at the Chelsea College of Art and graduated in 1988 with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. After university, Miller travelled around Europe and the United States, spending time in bustling cities like Berlin, Paris and New York. Miller’s travels after university were fundamental in the development of his artistic career as they exposed him to a range of artists and art movements he had never encountered before.
Known for his sardonic and scathing use of humour, it comes as no surprise that Miller too ventured into the motif of death in his oeuvre with an instantly recognisable witty and morbid sarcasm. Death, What’s In It For Me? Is one of Miller’s most iconic works. Recasting the cerise and white design of the Penguin Travel and Adventure series, Miller invites his viewer to ponder about the greatest adventure of them all and to carelessly mock, like he does, its inexorable destination. The popularity of the work is well attested by its auction history, with the painting selling in 2019 for £212,500 at Christie’s London.
The way in which Miller combines text and image in his artworks was heavily influenced by the work of American Pop artist Ed Ruscha, who Miller discovered while working in New York and New Orleans during the 1980s and 1990s, after graduating from the Chelsea College of Art. Ruscha was known for his textual, flat paintings which incorporated words and phrases into their design and this use of text shines through in Miller's Penguin Prints.
Miller’s second novel, First I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified, was published in the same year as his first book, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty. Based on a collection of Polaroid photos Miller found, each of which showed the knob of gas cooker turned to the ‘off’ setting, the story explores what it’s like to live with obsessive compulsive disorder.
From May to July 2009, Miller presented a collection of paintings and montages at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The works displayed were all made for BALTIC or adapted from Miller’s Bad Weather collection of paintings. These paintings were based on the artist’s iconic Penguin Prints, but the fictitious titles all related to the North East of England where Miller grew up. Miller also displayed a series of large paintings based on the billboards used by the West Yorkshire Police to disseminate information and attempt to catch the Yorkshire Ripper in 1978.
One of Miller’s favourite authors was the American novelist, Ernest Hemingway. Miller incorporated his love of classical literature and authors like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Edgar Allen Poe, into his artworks. The artist experimented with a dual literature/ art approach which challenged the strict dichotomy between art and literature, images, and words.
Published in 2007, International Lonely Guy is Miller’s first and only illustrated study of his paintings. The book also delves into the themes and ideas that run throughout and influence his artworks. The name was inspired by Sir Elton John who described the lonely experience of waking up, alone, in a new city. Miller has also made various prints using the same design as the book cover which come in three variations, a lithograph from 2008, a screen print from 2010 and a deck chair from 2013.
Miller is arguably best known for his prints that play on the dust jacket of Penguin Books. Miller adapts the familiar format of the book covers by adding fictitious, often humorous, titles and inserting his own name below the title, assuming the role of author. Taking inspiration from the Penguin dust jackets, Miller blurs the boundaries between art and literature.
Anselm Kiefer was a German painter and sculptor whose works use materials like straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac. Miller came across the work of Kiefer while travelling around Europe after graduating from Chelsea College of Arts and cites him as having had a significant impact on the development of his own visual style. Kiefer was heavily influenced by the poems of Paul Celan, and the role literature plays in his artworks resonates strongly with Miller’s approach to making art.
Language plays a central role in Miller’s artworks as the artist, who is also a renowned author, was fascinated by the relationship between words and images. Miller incorporates language into his artworks, notably in the Penguin series, and the artworks encourages the viewer to think about how words and images interact. Miller was also very interested in the way colour could be used to influence perception and many of his prints demonstrate the artist’s skill of coding language through colour and image.
Miller’s Letter Painting series is comprised of a collection of artworks centred around short words, acronyms, and letters. Miller’s later Letter Paintings were inspired by a writing style he found in some medieval manuscripts. Using the medieval font, Miller rendered the letters in bright and bold colours, explaining that he “brought a Pop Art sensibility to medieval manuscripts.”
While Miller was living in Paris in the 1990s, the artist stumbled across a box of second-hand books outside a bookshop near Notre Dame in Paris. The artist was drawn to their familiar, nostalgia-evoking covers and the simple way in which the books were colour-coded. It was this chance encounter that inspired Miller’s Penguin Print series, which the artist started in 2001, and marked a watershed moment in his artistic career.
Original Harland Miller artworks are highly sought after on the secondary art market. An original painting by Harland Miller can sell for £237,500 at auction, while a screen print can reach up to £73,000. Miller has numerous celebrity admirers who have bought his artworks. Notably, Ed Sheeran bought a particularly controversial print which he talked about in an interview on BBC4: “I bought this guy called Harland Miller, who puts really offensive slogans on Penguin books, I’ve got pretty much the most offensive word you can have huge in my house. That’s something I really buzz off, I really like.”
Miller rose to international fame with his Penguin Prints series, which he started in 2001. In these artworks, Miller takes the format of the familiar Penguin book dust jacket and changes it by replacing the book’s title with a witty, often sardonic, fictitious title. The series brings together influences from Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Art, demonstrating how artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Ed Ruscha had a significant impact on Miller’s development as an artist.
The Penguin Prints are meant to evoke nostalgia and familiarity. In order to do this, Miller brings a rugged quality to the prints, purposefully smudging pages, creasing the books’ spines and tearing the edges of the pages. Miller often does this by starting with a high-resolution digital photograph which he then layers base colours over. The effect of this layering is that the colours seep into one another, producing a faded look. These techniques are done so the prints recall a lifetime of love and use.
In 2020, the York Art Gallery curated a retrospective of Miller’s artworks that highlighted the importance of his upbringing in Yorkshire in the 1970s and how this formative period was key to his artistic development. The exhibition was called Harland Miller: York, So Good They Named It Once and featured some of his best-known works, such as his Penguin book covers, alongside new paintings that the artist produced especially for the exhibition. It was the largest solo exhibition of the artist to date and included more than thirty works spread over three galleries.
Miller’s artworks are often imbued with sarcasm and satire and the artist is known for having a dark sense of humour. Miller uses sarcasm and satire in his Penguin Prints to offer a light-hearted yet poignant socio-political critique on the current state of society. Miller's work has been described as “wittily deadpan, pinkish and aphoristic.”
While Miller is best known for his Penguin Prints series which is based on the dust jackets of Penguin Classics, the artist also made a series of prints based on Penguin Plays, capturing the artist’s knowledge and love for theatre as well as literature.
In October 2021, Miller’s Murder - We’ve All Done (2011), sold for £325,000 at Christie’s London, this was the highest figure to date achieved by the artist who is now rising to the ranks of his Young British Artist contemporaries, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin. Murder - We’ve All Done comes in various iterations and the title has been used multiple times across the artist’s oeuvre. Other notable sales of Miller’s work include Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore (2007) which went for £237,500 in 2019 and Too Cool To Die which sold for £277,200 recently at Sotheby’s London in March 2022.
For his prints, Miller uses polymer-gravure, photo-etching, block printing and silkscreen printing. Influenced by the Pop Art movement, these techniques allow the artist to reproduce his paintings in large numbers while also avoiding exact mechanical repetition. Every print produced by Miller is marked by slight variations, meaning each print is unique.
Amid all his macabre and eerie humour, Miller is also not one to resist indulging in hopeful messages, especially in times of hardship. Who Cares Wins is perhaps the best example of this more light-hearted Miller. Working once more with the classic Penguin book covers, the artist declines this work in many different colours. The most notable version of the work is the NHS Blue print, which the artist realised for White Cube throughout the first Covid-19 lockdown. With all the proceeds from the sale being donated to the National Emergencies Trust in the UK, the New York Community Trust and Hands On Hong Kong, this unique work showcases Miller’s philanthropic ethos.
Many artworks produced by Miller resonate with Abstract Expressionism which is characterised by the use of gestural brushstrokes, mark-making and an impression of spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism was developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. While travelling around the US in the 1990s, Miller was exposed to the works of these artists and they left a long-standing impact on the development of his own visual language.
Miller was born on 11 March 1964, in North Yorkshire. The artist’s childhood and youth in Yorkshire played an important role in shaping his artistic output. Inspiration for the Penguin Prints can, in part, be traced back to Miller’s father who collected second-hand books. Miller’s father collected Penguin Classics and would bring them home to excite his family after work. Miller’s artworks are often imbued with nostalgia and hark back to the artist’s childhood in Yorkshire.
Full of zeal, Miller continues making artworks today and never stops exciting art dealers and collectors with his humorous prints. The artist’s personality shines through in his artworks which are marked by his wit and dark humour, as well as a sensitivity to the current socio-political climate.