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Joe McLaren, Illustrator

October 16, 2013
by the gentle author

Yesterday, I took a trip down to Rochester to deliver an advance copy of my London Album to illustrator Joe McLaren in person, as a gesture of thanks for drawing the pair of dogs that are the symbol of Spitalfields Life Books.

Joe McLaren at Rochester Castle

“When I realised I was an illustrator and not an artist, it was such a relief because I didn’t have to philosophise any more,” admitted Joe McLaren with a self-effacing smile,“now I do what people pay me to do to earn the butter for my bread.” Yet, in spite of his modest demeanour, Joe’s distinctive graphic illustrations are to be found on book covers in every bookshop in the land.

Joe and I were standing on top of Rochester Castle with panoramic views across the Medway and he explained that this part of the country has strong family connections for him. “My grandfather, Bernard Long, joined the Merchant Navy in Chatham at fourteen in 1925 and retired at sixteen to join the Royal Navy. By the end of World War II, he was Captain of a minesweeper and then he retired to Leyton where he became a police detective,” Joe revealed, “My mother remembers visiting them in their small house in Vicarage Rd.”

After graduating from Brighton College of Art and a spell in London, Joe and his girlfriend moved to a remote house in Lower Higham, upon the dramatic landscape of the Kent Marshes, where she had family and he found himself caring for the abandoned church of St Mary’s which Dickens featured in ‘Great Expectations.’ “I used to ring the bells once a year on New Year’s Eve,” Joe informed me fondly, “and we turned it into a cinema and showed David Lean’s film there. ‘Great Expectations’ was my first Dickens novel and I loved it, even though I had to read it at school.” Subsequently, Joe featured the church of St Mary’s in his cover design for a new edition of the novel.

While in London, David worked in the basement of Smythson in Bond St, applying the gold letters to monogrammed leather cases. “In 2008, I saved up enough money to live for three months and left to become a freelance illustrator,” he recalled, “If I ran out of money, I would have gone back to my old job but, after a couple of weeks, David Pearson rang up to commission me and it went from there. We’ve been friends ever since.” Book designer David Pearson compares Joe McLaren’s work to that of Reynolds Stone, the celebrated wood engraver who supplied vignettes for the covers of early Penguin Books, and Joe has created motifs in a comparable vein for David’s contemporary reinventions of Penguin designs.

“I have been influenced by Edward Bawden and he was influenced by heraldry,” Joe confessed, “Everything I do is in a flat space, so it doesn’t matter where the light’s coming from, you are portraying the thing itself.” There is a certain unique clarity of line and an intensity of image which characterises Joe’s work, making it instantly recognisable, catching the eye and then holding its focus.

Yesterday, Joe was working on a scraperboard view of Rochester Castle when I interrupted him. Few use scraperboard anymore, it has become a degraded technique that is consigned to children’s kits in craft stores, yet Joe excels in exploiting its unique graphic potential. Invented a hundred years ago, it was an innovation for engravers when images could be reproduced for printing using photographic technology and there was no longer any need to engrave onto metal plates.

Standing there upon the outcrop over the Medway on that bright autumn day, the sunlight imparted a crisp edge to the buildings, highlighting the lively textures and contrasted forms of the diverse architecture in Rochester and giving everything the appearance of a Joe McLaren illustration. In this inspiring environment, with family history and literary association enriching a landscape full of visual drama, Joe has found his home.

Selected Poems of John Betjeman, commissioned by Miri Rosenbloom for Faber & Faber

Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis, commissioned by David Pearson for Portobello Books

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen, commissioned by Suzanne Dean for Vintage

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell, commissioned by David Pearson for Penguin

Why Look at Animals? by John Berger, commissioned by David Pearson for Penguin

Memory Place by Edward Hollis, commissioned by David Pearson for Portobello Books

The Once and Future King by T.H. White, commissioned by Clare Skeats for Voyager Classics

Silver by Andrew Motion, commissioned by Suzanne Dean for Vintage

The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, commissioned by David Pearson for Whites Books

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, commissioned  by David Pearson for Whites Books

Logo for the Owl Bookshop, commissioned by David Pearson

Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland for Whites Books

Illustrations for Potty! a cookery book by Clarissa Dickson Wright, for Hodder & Stoughton



Symbol for Spitalfields Life Books, commissioned by David Pearson

Illustrations courtesy of Joe McLaren

You may also like to read about

David Pearson, Designer

Here follow some snaps from my Rochester trip

Eastgate House in Rochester High St

Lodging House for Poor Travellers, founded 1579 in Rochester High St

Old wooden house in the Cathedral Close, Rochester

Charles Dickens’ writing cottage transplanted from his garden to a park in Rochester.

Old yard off Rochester High St

18 Responses leave one →
  1. October 16, 2013

    I particularly love the chimneys and the smoke and the snow.

  2. October 16, 2013

    These are totally gorgeous illustrations – and great photo’s to TGA! Nice to have taken part in your Rochester trip in this way.

  3. Libby Hall permalink
    October 16, 2013

    What a pleasure to discover the artist I have admired without knowing who it was!

    I have ‘Why Look at Animals’ arranged so I see the cover every day, simply because I so love the illustration and the cover design.

    I now realise I have several other editions of books with covers illustrated by Joe McLaren, books the content of which I already had, but which I bought again only because I found the cover illustration so alluring.

    “When I realised I was an illustrator and not an artist, it was such a relief because I didn’t have to philosophise any more” That is exactly what Tony, my late husband, decided soon after he left art school. For him, too, it was such a relief not to have to be be concerned any more about what was, or was not, Art!

  4. Paul Kelly permalink
    October 16, 2013

    Unique and very nice illustrations. Reminiscent of woodcut. I like the Owl.

  5. October 16, 2013

    A lovely post all round.

  6. October 16, 2013

    Joe McClaren’s so good – love his work and like his comment about the relief of not being an ‘artist’ – but he is, just as Edward Bawden was. Thank you for showing his work, and the photos.

  7. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    October 16, 2013

    A simply beautiful post, gentle author. Joe’s work is outstanding! I love its boldness.

  8. October 16, 2013

    joe mclaren rocks! we usually have to give up externally determined labels in order to be our best and truest selves. mr. mclaren has succeeded.

    love that little cottage of mr. dickens’ too.

  9. Vicky permalink
    October 16, 2013

    Fabulous illustrations, Joe!

  10. Ros permalink
    October 16, 2013

    Mouth-watering, beautiful illustrations and lovely photos of Rochester. Thanks!

  11. Catherine permalink
    October 17, 2013

    Marvelous stuff! Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful artist.

  12. October 17, 2013

    These are everything that is good about illustration. The lovely cover of We, The Drowned was one of the reasons I purchased it for the library I managed at the time it was published – how wonderful to “meet” the illustrator!

  13. Cherub permalink
    October 17, 2013

    Beautiful, I am a great fan of this type of illustration and collect etchings, woodcuts and linocuts. I also have a cousin who was a book illustrator working in pen and ink – it is a very undervalued art these days with all the technology at hand.

  14. October 19, 2013

    A very enjoyable post. I love this type of illustration; it reminds me of those in the Radio Times in the 50s and 60s when I was a child (Eric Fraser et al). I used to cut them out and paste them in my scrapbook. I have family in Chatham and I was very taken with Rochester when we visited it. This has whetted my appetite for further visits

  15. October 21, 2013


  16. maria permalink
    January 4, 2014

    Is he a wood engraver? or it is the simulation of it through illustration?

  17. December 13, 2014

    Wow, these are so beautiful, I want to go out and buy every single one and hang them on the wall! (Okay, I’ll probably read them first…)

    Lovely read as well. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. May 5, 2020

    What a gorgeous post! I am delighted to discover that Joe designed your dear dogs symbol for Spitalfields Life. I love spotting his work on the shelves at Daunt Books and other favourites including Clare Curtis and Angela Harding.

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