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2005-06, 346, Brian Taylor, Flora & Fauna


IN his article “The German connection” in the May 1982 issue of the Penguin Collectors’ Society Newsletter, Russel Edwards, after affirming the “debt owed by King Penguins to the Insel-Bücherei series published in Germany” goes on to say (p.234)1:

It is puzzling[…] that there has been such a comparative lack of interest in the Insel series. Little or no information in English is readily available[,…] Even accepting the British terror of all things foreign, this seems an astonishing state of affairs for a series which is still running after seventy years, has produced well over a thousand titles, and has had such an enormous influence on a much loved sector of the British publishing scene.

By the word “Insel” he is referring to the name of a German publishing house, and by Insel-Bücherei to a series of books – the Insel Library – published by this firm.

The publishing house’s name goes back to the title of a literary journal called Die Insel, “a monthly with book decoration and illustrations”2, that first appeared in the eastern German city of Leipzig in October 1899. However, the three editors, Otto Bierbaum, Alfred Heymel and Rudolf Schröder, had decided previously, on 19 September 1899, so just over 105 years ago, to use the journal as a basis for setting up a publishing house of their own as from October. This they did.

Now, the word Insel in German means ‘island’, and Insel-Bücherei literally means ‘Island Bookery’, so ‘Island Library’. Hence the word Island in the title of this paper. Why they called the journal “The Island” I do not know, but the possibly related symbol of the publishing house was always a sailing ship, which is found in six variants, one of which is used on the binding of the 75th anniversary bibliography.3

The aim of this new publishing house was, “apart from publishing purely textual works, mainly to attain the spread of artistically produced books with contents of the greatest literary value into wider circles of the German reading public…”.4 And the early titles seem to bear this aim out.

From 1906 on the running of the firm was entirely in the hands of Anton Kippenberg (1874-1950), a book dealer, who, however, went on, at the same time as he plied his trade, to do a doctorate in German literature at the University of Leipzig and to make his name as a collector of and an expert on the works of the great 18th to 19th century German author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), and, as well as all this, to himself become a writer and a translator of the works of others. Supported by the work of his wife Katharina (who died in 1947), he proceeded to give his publishing house the reputation of one that, amongst other things, promoted the book as a thing of beauty – or, as we in the Book Collectors’ Society might put it, that promoted the art and craft of the book.

While in the earliest years the authors published were almost all ones writing in German, by 1910 translations of the works of such Englishlanguage luminaries as Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde were appearing.

However, it is what occurred two years later that is of primary interest to us here. On 2 June 1912 the series to be known as the Insel-Bücherei, the Insel Library, was begun. Each book in this series was to cost only 50 Pfennig (half a mark or 50 pence), to be typeset by hand, printed on wood-free paper and, in contrast to other cheap series of the kind, to be bound in cardboard covered in coloured patterned paper and onto the front of which was to be pasted a label containing the author’s name, the book’s title and its number in the series. On the upper part of the spine there was also a label pasted that carried the title of the book, often abbreviated, its number in the series and occasionally the author’s surname.

Another principle was that in this series works would not be reprinted that the firm had already published elsewhere, but rather it would publish both older works that had been unfairly forgotten and the works of contemporary writers who needed exposure. As a result, the very first work published in 1912 was Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, The Manner of the Love and Death of the Standard-Bearer Christopher Rilke, by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). The book consists of a quite beautiful prose poem, 33 half-pages long, about a seventeenth century military member of, presumably, the author’s family. The first run of the first edition was 10,000 copies; it was quickly exhausted so that a further run of 20,000 had to be issued in the same year. In the meantime well over a million copies have been sold.

I happen to have a copy of this volume, which shows the various features: the patterned cardboard cover and the label on the front. Like all the pre- World War II volumes in the series, it is printed in Fraktur, the German black letter type (Illustration 1). Unfortunately my copy is missing the spine with some staining on the cover, but it has a stamp in Arabic on the front endpaper that reminds me that I got it with the fairly large library of a deceased Austrian Jewish woman who had wisely left Vienna before the Second World War broke out. She evidently came to Australia via Egypt, since very many of her books contain this Arabic censor’s stamp. I picked her library up at the request of her solicitor because after she died she apparently had no family left and he had no idea of how to dispose of it, so approached the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Sydney for assistance, and I was only too glad to assist. I hope to prepare an article about this interesting library for Biblionews at some future date.

I might just say at this point that by the 75th anniversary of the series in 1986, though with projections forward to what would appear in 1987, the series of numbers had reached 1081 according to the Bibliography published for the anniversary.5  However, this is far less than the number of titles that had appeared, since the publishing house reused this or that number for other titles when the work that had originally borne it had gone out of print and there was no prospect of a further edition of it. Some numbers, e.g. 99 and 100, were used for as many as 4 different titles; indeed, in 1913 all of Richard Wagner’s opera librettos were published in the series and all of them were replaced by anything up to three other titles after that one year.

Russell Edwards in 1982 quotes an estimate of the number of titles published by then as at least 1850 (p.237).

Sometimes the same title turns up at different times with two different numbers. For instance, one of the earliest titles in the series was the Prussian, later German, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Vier Reden zur äußeren Politik, Four Speeches on Foreign Policy, which, originally published elsewhere in 1871 on the formation of the German Empire (das Deutsche Kaiserreich), appeared in the series first in 1912 as No 4 and kept that number till the 4th edition of 1922, after which it was evidently not expected to be worth reprinting. In 1937, the number was given to a book titled Alte deutsche Liebeslieder, Old German Lovesongs, which had originally been published in 1915 in a shorter version with the number 281. But when in 1939 – significantly perhaps just around the outbreak of World War II – the Iron Chancellor’s book was republished as No 5, a number taken over from Hymnen an das Leben, Hymns to Life, by the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916), which, first published also in 1912, had seemingly exhausted its appeal by the 7th edition of 1931.


These earliest volumes consisted entirely of text without any illustrations save in some cases, such as the Old German Lovesongs, a woodcut or etching on the title page. Not till No 16 of 1912 do we get more, and in fact seven woodcuts illustrating a book containing five stories by Boccaccio.

To get anything at all that could have inspired the King Penguins we have to wait till No 281, but not, of course, the original No 281, which was the original Old German Lovesongs, as we just saw, but the second No 281 Das kleine Blumenbuch, The Little Book of Flowers, not published till 1933 and the first in the series to contain colour plates, in this case 58 plates. Though the illustrations are quite attractive, the cover is of unprepossessing design, merely green and white vertical stripes, whereas the later volumes of the kind have pictorial representations that relate to the things they depict inside, such as butterflies, feathers etc. Nonetheless, by 1986 it had run through 22 editions or reprints (Illustrations 2 and 3).

Unfortunately, for decades the volumes in the series carried no date of publication, so I am thus far reliant on the 75th anniversary bibliography for the dates I have been giving, these being based on the firm’s own internal archives, of course.

I have at present a collection of 36 books in the series, though in three cases that includes duplicates, so 33 titles. I will now for the most part only discuss those further illustrated ones that I possess of the kind which fed into the concept of the King Penguins.

No 100, also taken over from an earlier defunct title, as is the case with most of the books I am going to deal with, is Das kleine Buch der Vögel und Nester, The Little Book of Birds and Nests (Illustrations 4 and 5).

My copy is from the first edition published in 1934 with the plates produced in the 19th century, as is clear from the use of the old German script for the plate captions. The second edition of 1935 used modern plates. I think it is one of the ones with coloured plates that I acquired earliest. It belonged to my old lecturer at Sydney University, Dr Ralph George Crossley, who bought it in Dresden in 1935 and brought it back from Germany with him after completing his doctorate. After his death in the mid-sixties his widow sold his library to Tyrell’s bookshop at the northern end of George Street, Sydney, where I bought it along with some of his other books.



Incidentally, these books do not consist only of captioned plates, but at the end have some text, either a Nachwort, an afterword, a Geleitwort, accompanying commentary, or a Verzeichnis der Tafeln, a list of the plates, with some explanatory text. This observation is made by T J Pearce in an article on collecting King Penguins:

These Insel Bucherei [sic] do indeed resemble their British relations: of the same size and thickness and in similarly patterned boards, the normally comprise a sequence of coloured plates followed by a text on a wide range of subjects.In the same year, 1934, appeared No 133 Das Ständebuch. 114 Holzschnitte von Jost Amman mit Reimen von Hans Sachs, The Book of Classes. 114 Woodcuts by Jost Amman with Rhymes by Hans Sachs. Here the illustrations are not coloured, as the contents are a facsimile of the original black and white work of 1568. It is of special significance to me because a great deal of my academic research has been done on Hans Sachs, who may be familiar to you from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. A slip of paper inside it reminds me that I bought it some years ago from OP Books, an enterprise run by the former University of Sydney Librarian, the late Dr Andrew Osborne, and another former member of the library staff, Ms Barbara Palmer, who is still a member of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia.



Next there is No 164 Chinesische Holzschnitte in vielen Farben, Chinese Woodcuts in Many Colours, dated 1954. It is interesting in that two places of publication are given: the eastern city of Leipzig and the western city of Wiesbaden. This book appeared after World War II, of course, by which time Germany was split into two republics: the communist German Democratic Republic, where Leipzig now was, and the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany, where Wiesbaden was. The firm was thus split too along political lines: the western half soon moved to the city of Frankfurt on the River Main, and until the demise of the GDR in 1990 the Insel publishing house, in the east by then a state enterprise ( VEB or Volkseigener Betrieb), issued books in the series from both cities, Leipzig and Frankfurt, independently.

No 165 is Michelangelo’s Sibyllen und Propheten – Sibyls and Prophets – with 24 coloured plates after the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. It actually contains the date 1939, so is the first edition, not the later one reissued as No 616 in 1955. It is odd, of course, that this book actually predates the one just discussed, No 164. The number 165 had first been applied in 1915 to a book by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, then from 1927 to a book by the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, but for obvious reasons this Jewish author’s book was not republished after 1935, indeed was doubtless not ever to be published again, so the Michelangelo book was given the number 165 instead. In the event, Stefan Zweig’s book was republished after the war in 1948 and retained its old number, which is why the Michelangelo book had to assume the new number of 616 when it was republished in 1955.

One of the most beautiful of these Little Island Books is No 213, Das kleine Schmetterlingsbuch , The Little Book of Butterflies [including daytime moths], published in 1934 using 24 plates produced by the artist Jakob Hübner around 1800 (Illustrations 6 and 7). Two years later appeared No 226 Das kleine Buch der Nachtfalter, the Little Book of Nighttime Moths, which also contains Hübner’s plates, but I do not possess a copy. I actually have two copies of No 213, one I bought in Berlin a few years ago, and one I bought at Berkelouw’s Book Barn down at Berrima, New South Wales, more recently. The latter contains the bookplate of Lena Cohn, whose name makes it clear that she was Jewish, and the plate has the date 1947. It still contains a green publisher’s bookmark which lists “Die farbigen Bilderbände in der Insel-Bücherei”, the coloured picture volumes in the I.-B., in fact nine of them, but they are now 80 Pfennig each, so more than the originally envisaged 50 Pfennig.



There is also a bookseller’s label inside the front cover that indicates the book was bought in the then Palestinian, or perhaps already Israeli city of Haifa, so Ms Cohn may also have left Austria or Germany before the war and come via the Middle East to Australia. Indeed her bookplate seems to depict a Middle Eastern town with cypresses (or poplars?) and square multi-storey buildings behind a wall of possibly snowdecked boulders in the foreground and behind a much higher, straight wall the silhouette of old, oriental looking buildings in front of a higher hill or mountain (Jerusalem?). It is pasted over an earlier, smaller bookplate, which

I have not yet been able to view other than in the vaguest outline as seen through the top one. (It would be nice if I could one day swap one of my copies for the Night Moths book.) I also have two copies of No 269, Das kleine Kräuterbuch, the Little Book of Herbs, which appeared in 1936 and has a quite striking cover. One of my copies belonged to Lena Cohn and contains her 1947 bookplate with the remnants of the older one beneath, the other to Dr Crossley A numismatically fine book is No 270 Römische Münzen, Roman Coins, dated 1942, with 48 excellent reproductions of imperial coins from Augustus to the middle of the 3rd century AD. I got it cheap in Germany, for 5 marks, so at the time 5 dollars, because according to a pencilled note in German inside the back cover it is water damaged.

Another of the “Little” books is No 281, Das kleine Blumenbuch, The Little Book of Flowers, published in 1933 and which once belonged to Dr Crossley, though from a bookseller’s label at the back it appears to have come to him via the Continental Bookshop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, rather than having been brought with him from Germany.

The following year appeared Das kleine Baumbuch. Die deutschen Waldbäume, The Little Book of Trees: Trees of the German Woods, as No 316. It has the same provenance as the flower book. Another one that Dr Crossley appears to have brought with him from Germany is No 347, Der Sachsenspiegel. Bilder aus der Heidelberger Handschrift, The Saxon Mirror [original sense: Mirror of the Saxons]. Pictures from the Heidelberg Manuscript, which was published in 1933. It is of particular interest to me, as Crossley was my teacher in the area of Medieval German and the manuscript is from the University of Heidelberg, where I was a student in the early 1960s. The original work was written around 1220 in the Low German language of northern Germany. Of the thousands of manuscripts of the Saxon Mirror, only in four are the texts of the laws accompanied by pictures, as in the Heidelberg manuscript, where the text is also in the High German language of the south. The work is actually a lawbook and it gives itself the reason for its name in four lines of verse that I translate as follows:

“Mirror of the Saxons shall this book be called,/ for Saxon law is known from this,/ just as from a mirror women/ behold their faces”.7

The pictures, of which only a selection are given in this edition, illustrate the laws and have for me always been somewhat reminiscent of the poster erected by an early 19th century Governor of Tasmania that shows to whites and Aborigines alike by pictures alone that the killing of either by the other will lead to the perpetrator’s being hanged (Illustrations 8 and 9).

Another medieval item is No 477, Deutsches Handwerk im Mittelalter. Bilder aus dem Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung in Nürnberg, German Crafts in the Middle Ages. Pictures from the Housebook of the Mendel Foundation of the Twelve Brothers in Nuremberg, published in 1935 and which, judging from the pencilled price of 45p, I must have bought in Britain. It is a disappointment to me because all the plates are in sepia and, as one who has done a lot of research in Nuremberg over the last 25 years, I know the original manuscript – of a foundation set up in the 14th century by a man named Mendel to look after 12 poor tradesman at a time too old to carry on their trade any longer – has its illustrations in colour.

Preceding it in its number, 462, but not published till 1966, is Schrift und Buchmalerei der Maya-Indianer. 24 Tafeln aus dem Codex Dresdenensis, Script and Book Painting of the Maya Indians: 24 plates from the Dresden Codex, which takes us to South America via a manuscript codex kept in the Saxon State Library in the eastern German city of Dresden, a manuscript of which about one third was destroyed or damaged through the massive Allied bombardment of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War. My copy of the book was bought in Berlin not many years ago.


To return now to the Little Books in my collection. No 503 is Das kleine Pilzbuch. Einheimische Pilze nach der Natur gezeichnet, The Little Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools. Native Mushrooms and Toadstools drawn from Nature, from 1937. As you will notice the little word Pilz in German covers both mushroom and toadstool, which are distinguished by adding the adjective essbar for ‘edible’ or giftig for ‘poisonous’. My copy has the bookplate of Lena Cohn.

In 1937 appeared also No 515, Das kleine Buch der Greife. Einheimische Raubvögel, The Little Book of Giant Birds: Native Birds of Prey. The word Greif in this title is hard for me to translate. It really means ‘griffin’, which is a bird originally from Assyrian mythology, but is also used in German for a largish bird of prey, though some in this book, such as the owls, are not all that large. This copy also formerly belonged to Lena Cohn.

Incidentally, early on in this paper I said that one of the features of the Insel-Bücherei books was to be that they had a label pasted onto the front cover and the spine. However, most of the copies I possess haven’t, and the contents of such putative labels are actually printed on the paper of the cover as if on a label. When I survey my full collection of them I notice that actual labels seem to be lacking on most of the books I have that appeared in the 1930s, but are found again on many books that appeared later. Interestingly, the 75th anniversary bibliography has it stamped into the cover. This is something I have otherwise seen only on the most recent one I acquired, as a present from a friend in Germany, No 1188 of 1998, Siegfried Unseld’s Goethe und der Ginkgo. Ein Baum und ein Gedicht, Goethe and the Gingko. A Tree and a Poem, which, incidentally, has a combination of black and white and coloured illustrations, but scattered through the text of the book, not collected together as in the ones we are interested in here.

There were other illustrated Little Books published, but I do not possess them: No 158 Das kleine Buch der Meereswunder, The Little Book of Wonders of the Sea, i.e. sea shells, of 1936; No 255 Der kleine Goldfischteich, The Little Goldfish Pond, of 1935 with 18th century illustrations based on Chinese watercolours – a book I once had but which seems to have disappeared from my collection; No 151 Das kleine Buch der Tropenwunder, The Little Book of Wonders of the Tropics, i.e. flora and fauna; and the last one of this kind ever to have been published, as far as I know, Das kleine Insektenbuch, The Little Book of Insects, from as late as 1961.

So, that is a reasonably comprehensive coverage of the Little Books as well of some of the other collectible illustrated books from the Island Library of Leipzig.

How then did they influence Penguin of London in its publishing of the King Penguins?

Before I begin I must admit that my collection of King Penguins consists of only a dozen volumes and began only recently and virtually accidentally when I chanced upon a couple at Berkelouw’s Book Barn when I was buying the Lena Cohn books. A further five were delivered in a box with other donated books to the book stall I was manning at the Hunter Bailey Memorial Presbyterian Church fete in Annandale, Sydney, a year or two back. They never reached one of the tables, as I pounced on them immediately and paid myself, and so the church, considerably more than the standard price I charge for books there (20 cents for hardbacks, 10 cents for paperbacks – otherwise I’m left with most of them unsold). Just recently I came across a further five in Paul Faean’s Cornstalk Bookshop in Sydney’s Newtown. Two of them contain the signature of Margaret B I Russell, with one of these being dated 1947, and two that of the evidently related Jane Russell and dated September 1952 and June 1953.

As we have seen, the Insel Library series began way back in 1912, but it wasn’t till 1933 that the first of the Little Books with coloured illustrations – Das kleine Blumenbuch, the Little Book of Flowers – was published. As to the King Penguins, a complete list of these was published in 1950 with a brief history of them that began:8

The King Penguin Books were started in 1938 with Miss Elizabeth Senior of the British Museum Print room as editor. Five volumes came out between 1939 and 1941, and then Miss Senior was tragically killed in an air-raid.

It goes on later to say:

The series was in its early stages inspired by the Insel-Bücherei, a series of books of similar format published by the Insel Verlag of Leipzig. Most of these consisted of text only, but quite a number were picturebooks with excellently produced colour plates.

There are, however, differences between the Insel-Bücherei and the King Penguin Books, which have become more marked as the series has developed. for one thing, the programme of the King Penguin Books is much wider. It covers anything from the Bayeux Tapestry to Balloons, from Heraldry to Highland Dress, from Russian Icons to the Royal Tombs of Ur.[…]

But King Penguins are more than picture-books. The plates are preceded by texts of between twenty-eight and sixty-eight pages.[…]

It goes on presently to praise the excellence of the plates with a fairly detailed account of how they are produced, which I have not the space to go into here. Otherwise there is no explicit further comparison with the German series.

How fair are the comparisons made here?

We have been able to see for ourselves already that the range of the German series is pretty wide too, indeed No 875, which admittedly appeared well after the 1950 King Penguin list, in 1968, and which I didn’t mention before, was titled Ikonen, and contained 32 plates with Russian icons.

As to explanatory text, while some such as Das kleine Blumenbuch, The Little Book of Flowers, contain no text apart from a listing of the flower names at the back, others, indeed most, had, as mentioned earlier, some explanatory text in the form of an Afterword etc., though of admittedly much more modest length usually than that of the King Penguins, where the text as a rule took up more pages than the, very often, sixteen or so plates.

Russel Edwards in his “German connection” article is somewhat more sympathetic when he observes (p.235):

The outward appearance of the Insel series can most easily be described by saying that King Penguins moulded their own format closely on [the Insel-Bücherei]. The volumes are usually of the same size and shape[…]; the style of label on cover and spine is normally very similar; and some of the cover designs show a remarkable affinity, as with [Der Sachsenspiegel, the Saxon Mirror] and [Mountain Birds], where even the stars in the corners of the labels look alike.

While I have a copy of the Sachsenspiegel, I do not, unfortunately, have a copy of Mountain Birds to compare them. Edwards is able only to provide a very poor quality black and white photocopy of the covers of the two in his article. Instead, a comparison of Das kleine Kräuterbuch, The Little Book of Herbs, and Mosses might do us here just as well (Illustrations 10 and 11).

The few volumes of King Penguins I possess are, following the wording on their title pages:

K1: British birds on lake, river and stream. With sixteen colour plates after the originals in The birds of Great Britain by John Gould and a text by Phyllis Barclay-Smith (first published in 1939, but my copy is the reprint of 1943) (Illustrations 12 and 13);

K9: The Microcosm of London, by T. Rowlandson & A C Pugin. Text by John Summerson (first published in 1943, my copy being the revised edition of 1947, but lacking a number as it stands, though this can be obtained from one of the published lists);

K14: A Book of Lilies, by Fred Stoker. Colour plates by Lilian Snelling. (published in 1943);

K22: Heraldry in England by Anthony Wagner (published in 1947);

K29: Flowers of the Woods by E J Salisbury (first published in 1946, my copy being the second reprint of 1951);

K35: A Book of Spiders by W S Bristowe (published in 1947);

K37: Wild Flowers of the Chalk by John Gilmour. Colour plates by Irene Hawkins (published in 1947);

K46: Highland Dress by George F Collie. With colour plates from McIan’s The Clans of the Scottish Highlands (published in 1948);

K51: Life in an English Village. Sixteen Lithographs by Edward Bawden with an Introductory Essay by Noel Carrington (published in 1949);

K57: Paul Richards A Book of Mosses, with 16 plates from Johannes Hedwig’s Descriptio Muscorum (published in 1950, with a dustwrapper, which the German books never have);

K58: A Book of Ducks, by Phyllis Barclay-Smith with plates by Peter Shepheard (published in 1951, with a dustwrapper);

K60: Oliver Warner The Crown Jewels with sixteen colour plates by Paxton Chadwick (published in 1951);





Because of the amount of text they contain they, unlike the German Little Books, are very often treated as authored books with the names of the authors, who had probably been specifically contracted write them, on the cover. I am sure I once heard someone claim that a German who had worked for the Insel people in Leipzig and moved to England was responsible for bringing the idea for the King Penguins to London, but I have not been able so far to find anything specific on this point. However, Edwards in his article refers as an authority to a man with a clearly German name, Hans Schmoller, “who as typographer bears such a large share of the credit for the success of the later King Penguins” and quotes him as claiming: “K[ing] P[enguin]s unashamedly tried to emulate the Insel-Bücherei”. Edwards goes on to point out that

in many instances there was a close matching of Insel subjects and themes. In all perhaps a third of the King Penguins have a “pair” in the German series.

However, Steve Hare says that Schmoller joined Penguin, as a typographer, only in 1949, so ten years after the first King Penguin appeared.9

A more likely candidate then seemed to me to be Nikolaus Pevsner, whose given name at least looked German. Imagine my delight when in a German encyclopaedia I found him listed as being born on 30 January 1902 in, of all places, Leipzig – the very home of the Insel Verlag! The entry goes on to give him as having been a lecturer at the University of Göttingen from 1928 to 1933, then as a professor at Birkbeck College of the University of London from 1941, but no details between these dates. I inferred that he must have left Germany soon after the Nazi takeover in 1933, so that he might well have brought the idea of the Insel illustrated Little Books with him. J E Morpurgo, an important figure in the activities of Penguin, in his biography of its dynamic founder – with the very nicely punned title, Allen Lane: King Penguin10 – confirmed part of my conjecture when I read there: “[B]efore he was driven from Germany by Nazi persecution he had been lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of Göttingen” (p.151). But there was no mention of his inspiring the King Penguins, only that after Elizabeth Senior’s death in the air-raid “her place as series editor was taken by Nikolaus Pevsner” (p.149).

Pevsner himself had written something of the history of the King Penguins in 1968, which I will cite from Steve Hare’s book.

I think I will start with the prehistory of the King Penguin books which is how I got into the Penguin outfit and it’s a very characteristic Allen story. What happened was that the King Penguins were started just before the war and they were edited by a very brilliant young woman, Elizabeth Senior. They brought out Redouté’s Roses and they were very good; and I signed the contract to do something on illuminated manuscripts. Well, then some more books came out and the colour work was atrocious, so I wrote a polite letter to Elizabeth Senior and said I wanted to contract out of this because the books were not good enough.

Well, Elizabeth Senior was killed by a bomb and the correspondence must have gone back to Penguin Books. Allen must have seen it and in a very typical Allen fashion he wrote to me and said, ‘I see you find that the King Penguins aren’t good enough: can you do better?’.11

There is nothing here either, from the horse’s own mouth, to say that Pevsner was the actual inspirer of the series, even though after Senior’s death he did take over the editorship of it for some years.

As an aside, before we pursue the above matter further: it is always implied that the first book in the series was A Book of Roses, based on the publication by the French artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté from the first quarter of the 19th century and that it was followed by “the companion volume, British Birds on Lake, River and Stream, based upon the 1873 edition of John Gould’s Birds of Britain”,12 but in fact British Birds became K1 and Roses is K2.

To return to the inspirer of the King Penguins, perhaps it was not a German at all, but only Allen Lane himself who was behind them. Morpurgo points out that Lane’s Illustrated Classics series, begun in May 1938, proved a disaster, but that Allen “remained devoted to the idea that somehow he must enlarge the Penguin range to include illustrated books” and “[t]hus he came to King Penguins” (p.143). He goes on:

Kings were in concept, scope and appearance unashamedly modelled upon the successful monograph series produced in Germany by Insel Verlag. For Britain they were something entirely novel […] Within the totality of Penguin production Kings represented a break with tradition, […] King Penguins were esentially books for the collector, designed to please the eye and satisfy the gloating instinct which exists in most bibliomaniacs. (pp.143f.)

The idea for the new series seems, however, to have come up before the debacle with the Illustrated Classics, for Morpurgo says: “King Penguins – though not yet under that title – were mooted in the spring of 1937 but none was published until November 1939 – and even then only two books” (p.144). The trigger may indeed have ultimately derived from no single person in particular, if what Pearce says, citing the 1951 book Penguins: a retrospect (a book I have not yet been able to find), is correct: “We are told that, on their return, visitors to Europe ‘deplored the absence in Britain of any equivalent to the beautifully produced but inexpensive little books, half text, half pictures, of which the Insel organisation in Germany seems to have the secret monopoly.’” So presumably Allen Lane picked up on these criticisms by his own countrymen and -women and set about doing something for Britain. One of our problems in finding out for sure what actually happened is that, as Hare points out with regret, “the files relating to the King Penguin series cannot be traced at all” (p.xiv).

The King Penguin series lasted two decades, from 1939 till 1959, and consisted of 76 volumes, whereas the Insel-Bücherei series began in 1912 and is still going with well over a thousand volumes, but those Little Books that inspired the King Penguins did not begin to appear till 1933 and no new ones were published after 1961. One cannot fail to notice the various ironies in the fact of Nazi Germany’s not only inspiring in the year the war broke out a series in Britain that must have helped some at least of the British to “keep their chins up” during those awful years, but also of providing to Penguin in the person of Nikolaus Pevsner the gifted scholar who really got the series up and running.

I might in conclusion say that other illustrated series produced in Germany in the immediately pre-war years were not necessarily up to the standard of the Insel-Bücherei. There was in Leipzig in the 1930s another publishing house, Bibliographisches Institut, Bibliographical Institute, producing books similar, but not identical in format to those of the Insel Library. Like the King Penguins they contain long explanatory texts accompanying coloured and/or black and white plates, but their covers are utterly bland compared with either the Insel-Bücherei volumes or the King Penguins.

I have from this series a small collection of half a dozen items, all from 1934 or 1935. The topics they deal with look to me suspiciously nationalistic for that particular period:

Germanische Kunst, Germanic Art;

Die deutschen Kolonien, The German Colonies (which had ceased to be after the First World War);

Deutsche Kaiserbildnisse, Portraits of German Emperors (from medieval coins and manuscripts);

Die deutschen Reichskleinodien, The German Imperial Jewels (in whose text I detect a distinct Nazi influence);

Der deutschen Nation Landsknecht, The Mercenary Infantryman of the German Nation (a type of soldier of the 15th and 16th century who fought on the side of the so-called Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation)

However, for me as a railway fan from way back one of these books is all innocence: Die Ludwigsbahn. Die erste deutsche Eisenbahn, The [King] Ludwig Railway: The First German Railway, published in 1935, the centenary year of this six and a half kilometre Nuremberg to Fürth line, but oh, the printing! It looks like a train was going past as pages 14 and 15 were being printed and its vibrations cause the type to strike the paper twice, though not at exactly the same place. Insel would never have been guilty of such a thing – and certainly I have also never detected any Nazi influence in any of its books that I have read.


1. I used the bound set of issues of the Newsletter in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library (shelf No 020.75 14), in which there is a handwritten pagination running right through the set. I have used this pagination as there seems to be no other. The Library is listed as a member of the Penguin Collectors’ Society and will presumably have received the issues as they appeared, so the pagination would seem to have been added in Sydney in connection with the binding of them.

2. “Monatsschrift mit Buchschmuck und Illustrationen”, Der Insel Verlag (1899-1974), p.2 ( = 3). This brief history of the Insel publishing house, from which much of the historical background in my paper is taken, consists of 18 typed sheets roneoed or photocopied on one side only and bound in paper. There are two paginations: one at the top of the page numbering from the first page of text, and one at the bottom of the page numbering from the table of contents page. I give the former first. According to a colophon at the bottom of p.17 (= 18) it was produced by the press section of the publishing houses Insel and Suhrkamp, evidently by a Renate Roske for the firm’s 75th anniversary (“Herausgegeben von der Presseabteilung der Verlage Insel und Suhrkamp, Renate Roske, 6 Frankfurt a.M., Lindenstraße 29-35.”). It is available in the Fisher Library at 070.5094341 3/1.

3. The six variants are reproduced at the bottom of p.239 in Russell Edwards’s article.

4. “neben der Veröffentlichung rein graphischer Werke, hauptsächlich die Verbreitung kunstmäßig ausgestatteter Bücher von literarisch wertvollstem Inhalt in weitere Kreise des deutschen Lese-Publikums[…] zu erreichen.” Der Insel Verlag (1899-1974), p.2 ( = 3).

5. 75 Jahre Insel-Bücherei, 1912-1987. Eine Bibliographie mit 44 Abbildungen (75 years of the Insel-Bücherei, 1912-1987. A bibliography with 44 illustrations). Frankfurt am Main: Insel-Verlag, 1987.

6. T.J. Pearce, “Collecting King Penguins”, The Book and Magazine Collector, June 1984. I am in possession of only a poor photocopy of this article with the numbers at the bottom of the pages missing, so I cannot give its pagination here.

7. “Spigel der Saxen sal diz buch sin genant,/ wende Saxenrecht ist hir an bekannt,/ als an einem spiegele de vrouwen/ ire antlize beschouwen”, as quoted on p.3 of the introduction to this edition.

8. This short history was reprinted in the Penguin Collectors’ Society Newsletter of November 1978, pp.5-7 (see note 1 above), and I am working here from that reprint.

9. Steve Hare (ed.) Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970. London: Penguin, 1995, p.75.

10. J E Morpurgo, Allen Lane: King Penguin. A biography. London: Hutchinson, 1979.

11. Hare, pp.209f., cited by him from: Dedication by Pevsner in Bedfordshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough, Buildings of England BE34, 1968.

12. Morpurgo, p.143.



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