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TOM ADAMS AGATHA CHRISTIE COVER STORY

Tom Adams agent Virgil Pomfret reminisces on the humble beginnings: I can remember my visit to Patsy Cohen, then art-director at Collins, to show her a first proof for The Collector (John Fowles) and to suggest that Tom would be the right artist to illustrate the Agatha Christie paperback covers. She was of course enthusiastic about that now famous still-life, but responded in her normally cautious manner by suggesting that Tom should speculatively try one Christie cover, for Murder is Announced, and, if all went well with that, others might follow. Tom announced this particular murder agonisingly slowly. The Collector 1962 Novel by John Fowles, Patsy Cohens telephone calls to ascertain progress became more Hardback frequent and increasingly skeptical. When Tom finally delivered the artwork, at the eleventh hour, all doubts were dispelled the Adams and Christie styles were judged a perfect match. They were to be so for twenty years and few would dispute that they became the best known series of paperback covers throughout the world during that time.

Adams first Christie cover A Murder is announced is a straightforward still life, a scene from the book, clock on the mantelpiece, wilting violets in the vase, bullet holes in the wallpaper. The cutting from the local paper is the only intrusion on realism. There is a trompe-loeil effect created by the wallpaper background contrasted with the clock and violets. This is one of those I place in my personal category of early primitives. The newspaper clipping in particular is not very convincing. The painting took rather a long time to do; I was nervously aware of how much my future depended on its reception. In fact it pleased both Mark Collins and Betsy Cohen, at the time jointly responsible for Fontana covers. I remember my happy feeling of relief as I basked in their approval. Tom Adams The conventional cover for a detective story, whether by Agatha Christie or another writer, is likely to show some scene such as a man being hit on the head, or running down a dark alley, or discarding a pair of bloodstained gloves. The variation of subjects is endless, but the style does not vary very much. From the beginning Tom Adams covers for Agatha Christie books broke with this convention. He read the books three times first very quickly, then making notes of characters or incidents, and finally to form ideas for illustration. He had up to half-a-dozen ideas and tried a few out, before finding something that satisfied him artistically and echoed something in the book. But he went further, rejecting immediately the idea of showing Poirot or Miss Marple. The rejection was
Murder is Announced 1962 28 x 30cm

instinctive, but he later rationalised it, arguing that because both Exhibition detail Tom Adams notes characters were so firmly fixed in the readers imagination they could never be satisfactorily shown. Perhaps the rejection was based on the fact that as subjects they didnt greatly stir his imagination. He thought there were more interesting things to be done. Toms secret as a cover-illustrator above all, lies in his capacity for being oblique, yet so presenting this obliquity that it constitutes a lure. (John Fowles)

In his cover paintings for John Fowles The Collector and others, already experimenting very successfully in one of his favored techniques trompe-loeil, he continued throughout his career to perfect this unusual and delicate approach to making his marks. Purely by this ingenious technique we are immediately thrown into an atmosphere of mystery, bordering on the surreal. Remembering that this was long before cut and paste on the touch of a button, it clearly appealed to Toms playful and dare I say slightly mischievous nature in his desire to create surprising juxtapositions that often and unbeknown to us, will include elements of his personal musings and wonder. Tom had taken the utilitarian task of creating a book cover design to an extraordinary plain. His painstaking professionalism has led him to dive deeply into the core of the stories in search for his imagery of the mystery of the story and its writers. He does not stop there. He researches with greatest pleasure every element that he chooses to use in the paintings, thus revealing his personal symbolism to us while merely teasing the reader. Indeed through our conversations I am certain that Tom revels in his research as much as he loves the process of composing the paintings.
The Collector 1962 Novel by John Fowles Paperback

It is this great care and attention to detail combined with his unique imaginal thought and entirely subjective approach that make these paintings iconic. Virgil Pomfret rightly remarks Tom is a stickler for detail, he is seldom satisfied with any finished result and sometimes, as the observant viewer may notice, he will continue to work on a painting even after it has been printed and appeared on the book shelfs. Of course this explains the intriguing conundrum of a variation of dates on the occasional multiple versions of some nearly identical paintings. On some occasions, the artist simply decided that his first version will not do for a re-print and thus created an entirely new image, as he did for example in Murder at the Vicarage. Version one painted in 1962 is a simple still life with all the items on the shelf playing a part in the story. Perhaps quite rightly so, Adams himself puts the painting into the category of his early primitives. Authenticity was his obsession and to him it was an exercise to learn how to paint guns, generally speaking, an untidy and unresolved conglomeration, he mutters dissatisfied even now, fifty years on.
Murder at the Vicarage 1962 1st version, 30 x 42cm Murder at the Vicarage 1968 2nd version, 25 x 32cm

(Adams achievement in his quest for perfection in the painting of guns comes clear in his covers The mysterious Mr Quin1 and They do it with mirrors 2).

Much happier he talks about the second version of Murder at the Vicarage painted only a short while later. This now iconic Magritte-like image depicts Adams ingenious ability that blends the atmosphere of the tale, with his personal investigations into nature, philosophy and design. Adams is keen to point out, that the Dunlop people lent him one of the early rackets from their archive collection and that the shape was in the process of changing to the more familiar silhouette at the time this first Miss Marple mystery was published in the 1930s. Then, there is the demand of the US market that requires a different approach to the covers. Often starting with a different title to the same story, apparently Adams was under strict instructions to paint very realistic covers for the US, whereas Fontana UK gave no instructions of any kind. By the time Adams painted the cover for Sparkling Cyanide UK, he was well rehearsed in painting most effective sill-life images; simplicity in content and design a lesson he learned early on. It is difficult to say what is menacing about the almost Dutch still-life cover with the simple champagne glass, the evening bag, and the little bit of white powder on paper, yet it threatens, something evil waits. Interestingly, in the American cover of the same story Remembered Death he takes the graphic simplicity to a new extreme with an exaggerated perspective technique by placing the rosemary twigs right to the forefront of the picture; this unusual perspective perhaps one way to circumnavigate strict instructions. Noticeably his covers for the American market seem to reveal Adams strong sense of structure and perspective
Remembered Death US version of undoubtedly influenced by his architect ancestors, more Sparkling Cyanide so, than in his UK versions, where the freedom to play produced a larger variety of different realms and atmospheres. Sparkling Cyanide UK 1970 25 x 33cm

This does not mean that one or the other variety was always more or less successful. Either way, Tom Adams would be the first one to say that he did not always get it right the first time. What is intriguing is, how often he arrived at so very different compositions for the same story: Evil under the Sun the English version, was an attempt to develop a more painterly quality to his work. Adams only comment on this paining: ..for artists the road to perfection, which in itself is a mirage, has many seductive but dead-end side tracks like this.

Evil under the Sun UK 1964 22 x 28cm

But then we look at the stunning American version, painted only a short while later and we not only have to wonder what Christies tale might have in store for us but curious about the artists
Exhibition Detail Driftwood, Tom Adams Collection

infusion of his personal

Evil under the Sun US version 40 x 32cm

life into this painting and indeed many of the others. I cant help thinking, that more often than not Adams is telling us more than one story, and that it is exactly this blend of Christies tale with his own, that made the majority of his covers so curiously accessible and successful.

The writer and friend John Fowles who knew Tom Adams better than most during these two decades, has been observing the artists continual quest in trying to getting it right: Novels must always remain primarily their texts; and the jacket must always, I suppose, be mainly classed as a part of the selling process, the luring of the potential customer inside the covers (though only fools and the very highbrow imagine that the luring and selling stops at the printed page). Yet it seems to me that creating a good pictorial jacket for fiction a glance in any booksellers window on either side of the Atlantic will, alas, proof how rare an achievement this remains is something more then the purely commercial art which is how too many publishers still view it. At its best it requires gifts beyond mere ingenuity, calculation, flair. It will show an independence of mind in the artist an ability to hold author, text and publisher (and their often clashing demands) at arms length, and to find a truly personal solution. I know how hard Tom has fought on occasion to keep this independence of feeling and of vision; an obstinacy that is matched in his studio by the enormous care he takes to achieve the effects he wants. His work speaks for itself. It belongs to one of the most pleasant traditions in English art.

WHAT WAS IT THAT KEPT THE ARTIST INTERESTED OVER TWO DECADES? Robert Barnards once wrote about Agatha Christies tales: And if she had no desire to elevate her trade into a profession by writing anything that could be confused with a real novel, still less was she bitten by the fine writing bug. The main characteristic of Agatha Christies writing is that one does not notice it. And that, perhaps, is about the highest praise one could give to a writer of popular literature. Tom Adams responded to the mysteries instinctively: Not all of these stories have inspired me and I hope I have been honest enough to admit this when it has happened. In the main it was a labour of love. There is something about Agatha Christie stories, journeyman writer though she may have been, which trigger my imagination. I shall ever be grateful to her.

The opportunity to illustrate the Christie stories, provided Adams with the perfect platform on which he could develop his own tale within the pressures of the reality of life. The particular subject matter gave him huge scope to experiment as an artist with style and technique across an extensive historical palette of art, only to find his own language. Living and working in the midst of the realms and whims of the contemporary art of his pears, he was tirelessly active in pursuit of this freedom of experimentation that not least, the era provided him with. A great admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites whos rejected and forgotten paintings regained popularity during the sixties, Adams made no secret of his admiration of his heroes William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Indeed contemplating the resplendent women as depicted by Millais, Hunt, Rossetti and others, whos women are the most desirable and at the same time most frightening in their depiction of a kind of sentimental false memory of childhood, produce in us the effect of terror and at the same time a kind of attractive repugnance, the perfect blend for a murder mystery. Naturalist in its meticulous depiction of every detail, every Adams cover is imbued with complex symbolism that would suggest
The Lady in the Lake Novel by Raymond Chandler 22 x 36cm

another link to the Pre-Raphaelites. Adams boldly blended details of his heros paintings into his own, it might be a petal, or a vague gesture, this discovery is left to the keen observer.
Dead Mans Folly UK 20 x 28cm Dead Mans Folly US version Detail, 40 x 30cm

Victoriana another source of inspiration, for the cover The Mirror cracked from side to side Adams was borrowing the Lady from a Victorian drawing by J.W. Waterhouse of Tennysons Lady of Shalott. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crackd from side to side; The curse is come upon me, cried The Lady of Shalott

The Mirror cracked from Side to Side 1962, 20 x 29cm

Though happy with the composition, typically, Adams was always disappointed with the quality of the painting itself. He did not think it was doing justice to Waterhouse, a long forgotten Victorian painter he happens to respect greatly. Yet to the viewer, the contrast between the delicacy of the foreground figure and that bloodstained staring eye produces an image of disquiet that is powerfully suited to Christies tale. This juxtaposition is another typical Adams blend of that touch of raw realism with a dreamlike, surreal atmosphere. Close

observers will note the metaphoric symbols blending into the background. To most of us, it is another highly successful composition and one that has become an icon over the years.

Colonel Sun 1968, 34 x 22cm Novel by Robert Markham

The Vivisector 1970, 61 x 40cm Novel by Patrick White

Dali being the main source in Destination Unknown is no surprise. Classic surrealism among many things was a precursor to the psychedelic era of the sixties and seventies. A man of his time and as he mentioned before, it seemed obvious to want to play in this sphere. Remembering Adams extracurricular commissions for example for Colonel Sun1968, or The Vivisector1970, he was continually practicing his skill in the challenging obstacles that would be presenting a surrealist painter. Perhaps the very act of explaining this blatant eclecticism will seem like an apology but I must risk that. It is fairly obvious that the classical surrealism of Dali and Magritte lends itself admirably to the symbolist illustration of thrillers and crime stories. Perhaps an attempt to break out of the still-life straightjacket I had fashioned for myself. Tom Adams
Destination Unknown US 22 x 36cm Destination Unknown UK 21 x 35cm

Forever seeking perfection, Adams, perhaps with a few exceptions, was rarely truly satisfied with his works. Like most artists and as with the guns Adams forever sets himself new challenges. At different times he has particular obsessions in trying to master puzzling phenomenas: Just to find out what actually happens, and still mourning the demise of his favorite tweed coat, he stabbed the dagger through this tough fabric while working on The murder of Roger Ackroyd. The invading flies an obvious symbol of decay, did not require quite the same level of sacrifice but clearly Toms fascination in insects of all kinds turns out to be a useful interest throughout his career. A hoarder and an avid collector of the most eclectic selection of artifacts, corpses of insects and bones, Adams eye for detail does not only satisfy his desire to achieve maximum realism in his painting, but stems from his lifelong curiosity about the mechanics of all things nature or otherwise. When talking about painting The Hallow for example he once told me, that curious to see what happens, he dropped the gun into a paddling pool and unexpectedly there it was, the minute reflection of the gun in the bubble. The pond-skater added to the composition only enhancing Toms excitement in painting some of his favorite subjects.

Like Hockney and other artists I find the distorting effect of water fascinating. A distorted image is in many ways infinitely more interesting. Water changes reality and can create an interesting juxtaposition. A drowned body or anything under water is awful and terrifying, but at the same time, there is a certain cleansing effect going on. The water purifies and creates a barrier between you and the object.
The Hollow 22 x 36cm

The apple and its symbolism is another one of Toms favorites: Corbeil loved painting apples and many artists do. It is a challenge because painting a round object, particularly one that has a lot of colour on it, is a great technical challenge. Whats more, it is in a sense a symbol of life because it rots, it gets wrinkled and brown and disintegrates and of course there was the whole business of Adam and Eve. There is a lot in an apple. Confessing that his search for perfectionism on occasions nearly drove him to destruction, he would not have it any other way. In the name of realism he experimented with his subjects until he understood exactly what happens with this or that phenomena.
Halloween Party 22 x 27cm

Looking through a lens not only enables the eye to perceive an additional perspective but it will capture another wise fleeting moment of the invisible drama of natures theatre. Adams made extensive use of the camera and at times developed his compositions with a kind of pre-computer photo-shop technique.

Pouring water over Apple Archive Photograph

With an intrinsic love for mystery, his fascination of things that are not as they seem, his deeply mindful take on the British character, British literature, landscape and architecture, combined with a quirky, sometimes cutting humor, perhaps the Christie Adams match comes as no surprise. In her Agatha Christie Biography Janet Morgan remarks on this extraordinary disembodied meeting of the two minds: Collins did take trouble, Tom Adams first cover for A Murder Is Announced in 1962 was followed by over ninety other designs. Some are grisly a knife sticks out of Lord Edgwares jacket and some are deceptively serene. All are remarkable and perceptive, identifying Agathas own obsessions reflection; refraction; transformation of people, animals, landscape; malevolence insidiously victimizing innocence. Agatha, and later her family, found several of these designs disturbing, but acknowledged, rightly, that every cover was interesting, ingenious
Lord Edgware Dies 20 x 24 cm

and apt.

On reflection Tom suggests, that his age, (he was older then the average cover painter) and up bringing helped his instinctive understanding of Agatha Christie and the stories. Although of slightly impoverished professional middle classes and not nearly as grand as the Christie family, he had all the right attributes public school and university education etc. that at a modest level, he experienced the same background ambience of most of Christies plotting. My deeply admiring relationship with her is almost mystical. She knew and admired some of my work as her paperback cover illustrator. I knew and admired her as for many years my chief employer and benefactor. Although arrangements had been made on a number of occasions for me to meet Agatha Christie, for one reason or another it never actually happened. Some of my covers she disliked intensely, and with good reason! Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, where at the mischievous behest of Mark Collins I disobeyed my own rule never to show violence although I tried to mitigate it with a kind of intense surreal quality. Together with Mark Collins and my agent Virgil Pomfret, we did occasionally
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 20 x 26cm

meet her grandson Mathew Prichard and Agatha Christies daughter, Rosalind Hicks. Agatha Christie was a famously shy and reclusive person and even though at the time I was disappointed, in retrospect, I am glad I never met her. She would have been too embarrassed to discuss my cover paintings and so would I.
Tom Adams

THE MYSTERIES WITHIN THE MYSTERIOUS TALES Tom Adams continues to paint. Indeed it was in preparation for an extensive show of his Agatha Christie covers, when a number of long unresolved mysteries re-emerged: The Missing Owl Cover Endless Night 1970 Tom Adams writes about this intriguing tail for New Fiction 14.6.1978 I belong to what was not so long ago a small and insignificant sub-species of the illustrator family; cover
Endless Night 1970/2012 illustrator. I would like to make it quite clear, I am not a 25 x 27cm book jacket designer, a much larger and, in many ways, more legitimate branch of the profession. The evolution of the cover illustrator sprang from the almost total extinction of the much lamented book illustrator proper. We are now, I suppose, quite respectable. People collect the originals of our covers, we win awards; thats good. But not many people know about the agonies and frustrations inherent in producing a good cover.

I was young and eager but a preternaturally slow worker. My style was a detailed trompe loeil (deceive the eye, art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions) based on exhaustive reading and re-reading and analysis of the books. A lethal combination for an artist who aims to earn a living! These covers were successful too successful. In each case they amounted to about two months work. I have speeded up since then but I constantly regret that I did not adopt a less demanding style.

For people like me, of course, art directors have to build false deadlines, poor dears. We know they do, and they know we know and we know they know we know. Nevertheless, we all play the game in our own way with hysterics, rages and resigned patience. Art direction in publishing is an unenviable occupation. Those engaged in it need to be creative and practical, sympathetic and tolerant, wizards of diplomacy and blenders of talents. Apart from the everyday problems and distractions like cut fingers, spilt ink, bouts of flu and articles for New Fiction, the business has its own mysteries too. Some years ago, the good old Saturday Evening Post commissioned me to illustrate a prepublication serializing Agatha Christies Endless Night. I extracted from the story as my main image, a dead bird pierced with a knife. As I have always found the stimulus of realism important, my meeting an RSPCA inspector who told me about a tawny owl which had just died, apparently of starvation, was too good a chance to miss. A night bird! Perfect. I collected the still warm body from the inspector. Then the trouble started. I couldnt bring myself to stab that lovely plumage. For three days I hesitated. It was a hot summer. Finally I steeled myself and did the dreadful deed in the name of realism. By the time I had finished the painting, I had the windows wide open and every fly in London was homing in on me. But somehow I could not bear to bury that beautiful body, so I wrapped it in polythene and left it in a box in the garden. Later, I had to do the cover for Fontana, using the same image. I didnt fancy resurrecting my poor dead owl so I sent to New York for my original painting. Sorry, they said it seems to have completely disappeared. Well that happens of course, so using the proof of the illustration I re-did the painting and delivered it. A week later, an aggrieved call from Fontana. Could I please hurry up and finish the cover. But I delivered it a week ago! Embarrassed art director checks and admits painting arrived while he was away but it had disappeared. Exhaustive search is unavailing. I paint the owl for a third time, reflecting on the significance of the title. The painting is delivered, deposited in a safe and the cover printed. Sometime later I wanted the original for an exhibition. Youve guessed it..the painting vanished into thin air. I buried the owl carefully and hope that my punishment for desecrating that beautiful creature is now over. 2012 and many more attempts have been made to find this little painting without success. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to put this mystery to bed once and for all and with one month to go, Tom decides simply to paint one more version of Endless Night for the exhibition in Torquay Museum August 3rd October 2012.

Exhibition Torquay Museum 2012 Endless Night

The lost Portrait In preparation for the exhibition the hunt for original paintings began long in advance. Some were easy enough to track down and obtain; others required much detective work. The mystery of the lost portrait of Agatha Christie however, remains unresolved. Tom Adams recalls: In 1977 I had an exhibition at the David Mirvish Books Gallery in Toronto. During my stay in Canada I was in touch with Collins (Canada) and suggested to them the idea of a portrait of Agatha Christie. They readily agreed and commissioned it. I based the portrait on a painting by Richard Dadd an eccentric English nineteenth century artist. This picture contained a marvellous rustic seat made from skillfully convoluted branches. This symbolized for me the skillfully convoluted twists and turns of Agatha's plots! In the background is a house based on the description of Styles from Christie's first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I also incorporated various other Agatha Christie Portrait by Tom Adams 1978 references to some of her milestone books: Poirot in a wheelchair (Curtain - his last case); wool and knitting needles (Sleeping Murder - Miss Marple's last case), a harlequin, a poison bottle, a skull and Tunisian dagger (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Documentations confirm Toms recollection that the portrait was painted at his suggestion for W M Collins (Canada) Ltd., and only later used on the dust jacket for The Agatha Christie Whos Who, compiled by Randall Toye, created and produced by Jonathan-James Books, Canada, 1980 without his prior knowledge. We know from those who worked at the Canadian office of Harper Collins that the painting hung on the wall outside the boardroom throughout the 1980s, until the company moved offices and it disappeared. A search in the archives has proved unsuccessful. We are cautiously hopeful that an article in the Toronto press might reveal further clues of the whereabouts of this intriguing painting. Tom Adams wish to re-paint the portrait has to remain on the to do list for now. Presently he is working on a new cover for Dead Mans Folly to be released in 2015 in celebration of Agatha Christies 125th anniversary. It might be a still-life, or it might be trompe-loeil or something else entirely, certainly it will be in Adams style of grand guignol; half of you is horrified, the other half is laughing.

POSTSCRIPT Ten years after Tom Adams painted his last cover for Fontana in 1979 Miss Marples Final Cases Harper Collins in commissioned Market Research Company James R Adams & Associates to find reasons for the mysteriously declining sales of Agatha Christie books.

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After months of questioning large numbers of target groups it became clear that Christie was still considered the Queen of crime and that there was no dramatic decline of people claiming to buy paperbacks, researchers started to look at cover designs to try and resolve the persistent mystery. The groups were consistent in their reactions. The covers often featured blood and gore. The problem had arisen because the book market had changed with the rise in sales of horror books and designs for Agatha Christie had been influenced by this trend. The situation was a classic double turn-off. Christie readers turn away from the more gory aspects of crime; there might be a whole series of violent deaths in her books, but there is no dwelling on the details. The readers classed her books as having nice murders. What happened was that there was conflict on the covers: Christie said one thing, the picture another. Thus the cover designs following Tom Adams were actually inhibiting sales, not helping them. From discussions about how respondents buy books, it was found that the cover design was extremely important. Psychologically, it could be the case, that, in situations of conflict or mismatch, a pictorial image tends to dominate; pictures are processed more quickly then words. Or it could be that salience could lead to selection attention of the pictorial information. (The Bookseller, 1989) Harper Collins reacted swiftly to these findings, changing the covers yet again to more subtle and intriguing designs, which reflected the way the author wrote. With the impression of quality regained, the new style, by a new set of artists was welcomed by the readers and sales soon improved. =================================

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