His parodies of vintage Penguin book covers are his best-known works, but Harland Miller’s artistic practice is wider than many people realise. He is inspired by more than just Penguins and, in addition to painting, also creates editioned prints. Here we discuss Miller’s most notable styles and the ideas behind them, illustrated by some of his most in demand works.
1. Penguins Classic
“The Penguin paintings have quite a unique format. You can really say anything you want in that middle panel, because people are already used to the form of the Penguin books,” Miller has said.
After rediscovering vintage Penguin books in Paris in the 1990s, Miller’s humorous Penguin-inspired covers have become his most recognisable and celebrated works. The artist has created variations of the same titles in different layouts and colours. Changing the colour, in particular, “change the way you read the title,” Miller noticed.
Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore
Incurable Romantic is a title that Miller has returned to time and time again since the mid-2000s. Here, the lonely heart advert is given a comical twist – perhaps this mix of sweetness and dark humour is what makes the work one of Miller’s most popular on the secondary market.
In March 2019, the sale of Incurable Romantic from singer George Michael’s collection at Christie’s set a new auction record price for Miller. Since then, the demand for his art has continued to rise – the last two years have seen his paintings regularly double, sometimes even triple, their high estimates.
While an original painting of Incurable Romantic can set you back up six-figure sums (George Michael’s version achieved £237,500, almost five times its high estimate), a limited-edition print of the artwork can be acquired for much less. Miller released a digital print of Incurable Romantic in 2011 (35 signed editions), featuring a Penguin book cover with six blue and red dots. An original painting of the Incurable Romantic print was released in 2012.
2. Psychology Books (Cuboids)
In 2016, Miller created a new series of paintings based on psychology and self-help books from the 1960s and 70s, which were exhibited at his Tonight We Make History (P.S. I Can’t Be There) show at Blain/Southern in Berlin. Unlike his Penguin covers, these new designs placed the text at the top and the cover image bears little resemblance to the title – a nod to the abstract covers from the original books.
Without the Penguin template, Miller found that he would play with the titles for “a long time”, adding or removing individual words. Many of his titles that sound good “actually [didn’t] look good,” he realised, and “there seem to be no typographical solutions to it”.
In Shadows I Boogie
In Shadows I Boogie was initially called In The Shadows I Boogie. “It didn’t work graphically, so it became In Shadows I Boogie. That’s possibly more of a phrase to conjure with, and more poetic,” Miller said. The first version of In Shadows I Boogie was a 2017 painting, made for Miller’s exhibition One Bar Electric Memoir at London’s White Cube. In 2019, Miller released another design of the title as two series of etchings – featuring blue or pink backgrounds – both in 100 signed editions.
That same year, the print became the cover of Miller’s Phaidon monograph, which illustrates 20 years of his art. In Shadows I Boogie is Miller’s second art publication and fourth book – his first monograph, International Lonely Guy, was published in 2007, and Miller has penned two novels, First I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified and Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, both published in 2000.
3. Penguin Plays
In the early 2010s, Miller created a series of paintings on paper inspired by Penguin’s theatre series. “The jazzy Broadway-style branding of this series has a lightness and a level of unreality compared with the authoritative Classics. The fact that they are plays suggests something larger than life,” Miller has said.
Named after Miller’s first exhibition in Scotland – Overcoming Optimism at Ingleby Gallery from 2012 to 2013 – the screenprint Overcoming Optimism was released in 2014 in 50 signed editions. It is currently among Miller’s most expensive prints at auction; the top price paid for an Overcoming Optimism screenprint is £23,812 at Bonham’s in June 2020.
Other notable prints with Penguin Plays covers include: Blonde but not forgotten; Wherever You Are Whatever You’re Doing This One’s For You; There’s No Business Like No Business; I’m The One I’ve Been Waiting For;
Miller created his Poets series in the early 2010s, mimicking the covers of some old bookkeeper’s ledgers that he found on the street. The marbled effect was created by tilting thinned paint back and forth – a relatively easy task for his paintings on paper but, for his works on wooden panels, the process took tens of hours of labour. The paintings’ seams were created in copper, silver and gold-based pigments. The whole series was so ladened with toxic fumes and particles that Miller spent three months in an Austrian clinic, recovering from heavy-metal poisoning.
Love Conquers Nothing
The digital print of Love Conquers Nothing was released in 2011 as 35 signed editions, before the original painting on panel was completed. Miller also created other titles with “love” for the Poets series – Love and Other Crimes and the uncharacteristically optimistic Love Saves The Day.
5. Letter Paintings
“I brought a Pop Art sensibility to medieval manuscripts,” Miller said of his Letter Paintings series from 2017, inspired by the illuminated manuscripts that he studied in art school. The Letter Painting series has some of Miller’s most colourful and cheerful works, with many of the titles celebrating the artist’s Yorkshire heritage – such as praises like Boss and Ace, and the term of endearment Luv.
Ace is the only Letter Paintings artwork that Miller has released as a print. The original painting was created in 2017. In 2019, Miller released it as an etching in 50 signed editions and an artist’s proof – the latter sold for £18,750 in Christie’s online auction in July 2020.
6. Pelican Series
Miller’s “Pelican Bad Weather Paintings” were inspired by a nostalgia for his childhood holidays in the seaside towns around Yorkshire. “I think it was in the 1980s; there was some kind of movement to rebrand Britain in a more positive – perhaps more international – way,” the artist recalled. “My heart went out to those with the job of reimagining the weather, especially in the North, and the ‘Pelican’ series derived from there.”
Bridlington – Ninety Million Miles From The Sun
In addition to their pelican logo, each artwork in the Pelican series is notable for their unique blue and grey colour scheme, often with dripping paint in reference to the rainy weather in Northern England.
Other notable prints with Pelican covers include: York, So Good They Named it Once