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Joe McLaren, Illustrator

February 26, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far to my crowd-funder to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We have raised two-thirds of our target now, so please help by spreading the word.





I am delighted to introduce the logo for my tours with illustration by Joe McLaren, type by Commercial Type and art direction by David Pearson


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


Illustrations courtesy of Joe McLaren

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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    February 26, 2022

    Wow, wow, wow! Super duper. Thank you.

  2. February 26, 2022

    This was another interesting article and I very much admire the illustrator’s artwork – does he ever do online workshops? I’m sure there would be many people interested to observe and/or try out his scraper board techniques

  3. Sue permalink
    February 26, 2022

    Beautiful book covers. Magical. ?

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 26, 2022

    What an interesting post and background to such a talented illustrator. Loved the historic buildings of Rochester too which looks well worth a visit.

  5. February 26, 2022

    I always admire people who have found their passion in their profession: Illustrating book titles is an exciting and wonderful task. I myself have not yet managed it…

    Working with scraperboard has of course resulted in quite unique motifs. Very beautiful!

    The works remind me very much of the work of a well-known graphic artist, CELESTINO PIATTI, who would have turned 100 this year and whose work I have admired all my life:

    Love & Peace

  6. Karin Barth permalink
    February 26, 2022

    Thank you so much, Gentle Author, for introducing Joe McLaren to your audience! Most of us will be familiar with his magnificent work (and wonderful Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town!), but not with the brilliant artist behind these beauties!

    Although I’ve had this edition of John Berger’s Looking at Animals for years, I was not aware of the creator of its beautiful cover and his rich oeuvre. After reading your illuminating story I’ve ordered another book with one of Joe’s adorable covers right away — to join my collection of books on and by Edward Bawden!

    I’m also grateful for the short excursion to Rochester where I haven’t been before, but it’s on top of my list now for my next trip to England!

    With warmest regards from Berlin, on the shaken continent

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    February 26, 2022

    I like your new logo.
    Years ago I selected “Silver” for purchase primarily because the cover art lured me to the book table.
    Wouldn’t art by Mr. McLaren be wonderful illustrations for your annual Christmas story?! (wink)

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    February 26, 2022

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great piece about Joe McLaren and his work. So glad he accepted his role as an “illustrator” without the pretensions of high art. These book covers are so dramatic.

    Favorites: John Betjeman’s poems, especially the train; Great Expectations – really evokes the mood of the novel’s Kent landscape; and Potty about Clarrisa Dickson Wright because I loved “Two Fat Ladies.”

    It’s easy to see why Joe’s publishers value his work so much.

  9. February 26, 2022

    In America, we have needlessly wrestled with the perceived distinction between “artist” and “illustrator” for ages; as if there was a pecking order or hierarchy involved. Lordy!? Remarkable artists such as Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and others were given that “tut, tut” wave of the hand, as if their work was “less than”. Absurd. Luckily, we finally came to our senses; and a whole NEW Golden Age of Illustration emerged here; before the digital take-over.
    The storied traditions of your amazing illustrators have been a consistent inspiration — and thanks to Spitalfields Life, we continue to learn about more and more and more. Thanks for showing us so many examples of Joe McLaren’s work — it was impossible to have a favorite. (although the swirling waves of “Silver” and the wind-tossed landscape of “Great Expectations” caused a first/second/third look.) Wonderful! Wishing him continued success.

  10. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    February 27, 2022

    Just delightful!

    Thank-you, gentle author, for this fantastic post with Joe’s amazing work. What a career!

    I was utterly surprised to see Dicken’s working cottage. It just doesn’t seem to match what I think of Mr Dickens. For me, it’s a gingerbread house or a weather cottage that the little woman and man pop out of, depending on the weather. I’m sure they have a name…….

    Carolyn – Queensland Australia

  11. Peter permalink
    February 27, 2022

    Dear Gentle Author, did you get a shot from the top of the castle at all?

  12. February 27, 2022

    So strange to see. My first job was at The Curwen Press in the ’60s-’70s and this is the sort of material I was handling almost everyday as we had a huge stock of engravings by Ravilious and contemporaries

  13. Cherub permalink
    February 27, 2022

    These illustrations are magnificent. I can see the Edward Bawden influence.

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