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“The Usual Fee”. From Five Pounds to Thirty Shillings

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

McKnight Kauffer Musings

“The Usual Fee”

From Five Pounds to Thirty Shillings

In 1930 McKnight Kauffer proclaimed that he considered "the artistic problems of the book wrapper to be identical with those of the poster". But publishers expected a book jacket designer to be content with a fee ranging, as he put it, “from five pounds to thirty shillings”. For this paltry sum he would need to read the book, present the publisher with one or two rough designs for approval, then execute the finished artwork

Contrast this with fees he was paid for poster designs. Although there are very few extant records of what fees McKnight Kauffer quoted, or what he was actually paid, the records for the Empire Marketing Board publicity campaign, which ran from 1926 to 1933, are well preserved in the National Archives. For a set of five posters advertising the bountiful food grown in the tropical Empire he received £300. He did request a further fee of 25 guineas, but was unsuccessful. It was common practice in the inter-war years for professionals such as writers and artists to be paid in guineas, and in certain areas of business (auction houses etc) guineas continued to be used as a unit of currency until decimal currency was introduced (a guinea being one pound sterling, plus one shilling).

Another example of the fees McKnight Kauffer might be paid for a poster design can be found in a letter (February 1933) he wrote to the architect Oliver Hill. It was in answer to a request for two posters advertising Hill’s modernist Midland Hotel in Morecambe. I am not sure what these posters were for as it was Hill who commissioned Kauffer, not the hotel owners, the London Midland and Scottish Railways (LMS). Kauffer quoted a fee of 150 guineas for two poster designs, and a fee of 15 guineas for preliminary designs if they were not accepted. It is not surprising Hill should call upon McKnight Kauffer as he had employed many other artists and craftsmen, such as Marion Dorn, Eric Gill, Eric and Tirzah Ravilious, to embellish the modernist hotel with carvings, murals and mosaic designs. In the letter McKnight Kauffer also mentions the design of an exhibition symbol – so, perhaps the posters were intended to advertise an exhibition publicising the hotel. To my knowledge these posters never saw the light of day. Perhaps the exhibition never took place, or maybe Hill found McKnight Kauffer’s quotation a little on the high side. Does anyone know?

Not by McKnight Kauffer,

This poster was used by LMS to advertise the newly opened Midland Hotel, Morecambe, 1933
It is by Ralph Mott Amusingly at least two auction houses assumed this was one person even establishing dates of birth and death. Ralph & Mott was in fact an advertising agency run by Rickman Ralph & Geoffrey Mott

Marion Dorn rug
The North Hall
Midland Hotel, Morecambe 1933

The Usual Fee

I can give a good example of the relatively miserly fees McKnight Kauffer was paid for book jacket work. It occurred in1939, a time when I consider McKnight Kauffer to be at the absolute pinnacle of his career. In January of that year he accepted a book cover commission from The Hogarth Press for “the usual fee”. This was to design a book jacket for H.T. Hopkinson’s first novel The Man Below. Kauffer worked swiftly. From a commissioning letter dated 21 January, he submitted two roughs on the 28 January, acceptance of “design No. 2” on 30 January, delivery of final artwork the following day, and payment of the “usual” four guinea fee on the 2 February! An interesting addendum to the story occurred towards the end of February when McKnight Kauffer asked Mrs Nichols, the office manager at The Hogarth Press, to send H.T. (Tom) Hopkinson the original jacket artwork. “Mr Hopkinson and I happen to be old friends… He said he would very much like it”. Tom Hopkinson, journalist and author was best known for his role as deputy editor and then editor of the Picture Post photojournalist magazine from 1938 – 1950.

A page from a December 1938 issue of Picture Post showing Stefan Lorant, the editor at the time, and assistant editor, Tom Hopkinson, working on an issue of the popular magazine.
Tom Hopkinson took over the editorship in 1940

The economies of how much a book publisher could allow for a cover design also applied to printing. Covers were frequently printed in just two or three colours. McKnight Kauffer has used the palette limitation well, achieving impact by the use of a silhouetted profile of, I assume, the protagonist Sinbad. In the book Sinbad is depicted as a young intellectual who imagines himself in different guises such as a politician, an explorer, and a dilettante. Kauffer symbolising this notion by illustrating a galaxy of stars, and a shadow effect possibly symbolising his alter-ego. In his book jacket and poster designs McKnight Kauffer frequently used the device of alternating lettering from positive to negative as can be seen here in “BELOW”.

H.T. Hopkinson The Man Below The Hogarth Press 1939

In my view, what separates McKnight Kauffer from most book jacket designers and commercial artists of his era was his absolute love and knowledge of literature, and the fact that he knew and be-friended so many of the writers he designed book jackets for. Of course, he knew Virginia and Leonard Woolf of The Hogarth Press very well, and designed one of his most striking covers for Leonard Woolf's book Quack, Quack, a book, Woolf wrote, "about quackery in politics, and largely about fascism". In one archive I visited in New York many years ago I noted that there were letters from McKnight Kauffer to 30 different authors. This thought might lead me to creating a Blog post on this topic alone. And, like Hopkinson, there are many instances where the author requested McKnight Kauffer's original book jacket artwork, again an interesting topic to write about.

For a critical contemporary critique of McKnight Kauffer's Empire Market Board set of posters:


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