Ian Fleming : Bibliophile

Ian Fleming died fifty years ago on 12 August 1964, succumbing at the age of 56 to what he termed the ‘Iron Crab’ of heart disease, after a life spent with the same intensity as his enduring hero James Bond. The character shares most of his creator’s enthusiasms – cocktails, casinos, the Caribbean, scrambled eggs, fast cars and faster women – but not his bibliophily. Bond is a man of action whose reading is chiefly restricted to the “Times” newspaper, official dossiers and golf manuals. Fleming, however, vigorously pursued an interest in the design and collecting of books which is reflected in the National Art Library’s extensive holdings of his works.

Photograph of Ian Fleming

Photograph of Ian Fleming, 1960. © Getty Images

Although Fleming’s “Who’s Who” entry cited First Editions as a recreation, his renown as a collector lies in the field of ‘milestones of human progress’ or ‘books that made things happen’. From 1935 he commissioned the rare book dealer Percy Muir to assemble over a thousand volumes of pioneering texts (on subjects ranging from science and technology to politics and sports) which were undervalued by fellow collectors. Muir introduced Fleming to the Biblio-boys, an informal dining club for young bookmen. One such was the bibliographer John Carter who recognised the significance of Fleming’s collection and persuaded him to lend 24 books to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition of printing held in 1940 to mark the quincentenary of Gutenberg’s invention. In 1963 Carter and Muir arranged the celebrated “Printing and the Mind of Man” exhibition at the British Museum and Earl’s Court, to which Fleming lent 44 books, the second largest contribution after King’s College, Cambridge.

Fleming took particular care in housing his books, each one having a black buckram fleece-lined box custom-made to his own design, decorated with his armorial device stamped in gold and morocco labels coloured according to subject. After his death the Lilly Library at Indiana University purchased this collection, as well as his manuscripts and personal copies of his fiction. These were bound to his specifications by Arthur Last, a founder member of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders.

Fleming’s bibliophilic pursuits were curtailed in 1940 when he joined Naval Intelligence. After the war he took up the post of foreign manager of Lord Kemsley’s newspaper empire, which included the “Sunday Times”. In 1952 Kemsley started publishing the “Book Collector” with Fleming on the editorial board alongside Muir. Three years later, he had tired of the journal and sold it to Fleming for a nominal sum.

By then, the first three Bond novels (“Casino Royale”, “Live and Let Die”, and “Moonraker”) had been published. Fleming himself directed the design of their dust jackets which were illustrated by Kenneth Lewis, an artist in Kemsley’s Visual Features department. Fleming was helped in the choice of typeface by Robert Harling who acted as typographic consultant for the “Sunday Times” and the “Book Collector”. He had worked for Fleming in Naval Intelligence, redesigning the Admiralty’s weekly reports, and was later recruited by him for a special commando unit (nicknamed the ‘Red Indians’) organised to gather enemy intelligence documents as the Allies advanced across Europe. His adventurous war service and raffish good looks made him a ready model for a fictional secret agent.

Photograph of Robert Harling

Photograph of Robert Harling, by Howard Coster, 1945.
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Fleming’s contribution to book design was recognised by the Royal College of Art where he was elected to the governing council in the mid-1950s. At this time he discovered the work of water-colourist (and future RCA tutor) Richard Chopping whose macabre trompe-l’oeil illustrations, combined with the stencilled tea chest type designed by Harling, established a distinctive identity for the Bond novels’ dust jackets.

Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice”

Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice”. Cover designed by Richard Chopping. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964. NAL Pressmark: 95.LL.52. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.

Fleming’s newspaper work enabled him to keep abreast of changing trends in graphic design. When the “Sunday Times Colour Section” was produced in 1962 as the first British colour supplement, Fleming’s story “The Living Daylights” appeared alongside contributions by David Bailey, Peter Blake and Mary Quant. The RCA’s Lion and Unicorn Press considered publishing it as a limited edition (with an illustration by Graham Sutherland), but the project proved too expensive.

Ian Fleming’s “Live and Let Die”.

Ian Fleming’s “Live and Let Die”. Cover designed by Rex Archer. London: Pan Books, 1958. NAL Pressmark: SN.91.0036. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.

1962 also saw the release of “Dr. No” as the first of the film franchise which gained a global audience for Bond. The same year Len Deighton published his spy novel “The IPCRESS File” with a revolutionary dust jacket by Raymond Hawkey (a graduate, like Deighton, of the RCA School of Graphic Design). Hawkey applied photographic techniques used in magazine advertising to create a modern aesthetic of seedy realism for the post-war thriller. With Fleming’s approval, he redesigned the more conventional covers of the Pan paperback Bond series, highlighting the character’s name in bold lettering set against stark, spare imagery to create a uniform style for a popular literary brand.

Ian Fleming’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"

Ian Fleming’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Cover designed by Raymond Hawkey. London: Pan Books, 1965. NAL Pressmark: 801.AQ.0035. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.

Since Fleming’s death his books, in their various editions, have become highly collectable and many now have a suitable home in the National Art Library’s special collections among classic examples of modern book design.

Further reading

Barker, Nicolas, ‘Bond and the “Book Collector”‘, “Book Collector”, vol. x, Spring 2014, pp. 11-28. NAL pressmark: PP.8.O

“Bond Bound: Ian Fleming and the Art of Cover Design”. London: Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation, 2008. NAL pressmark: 602.AJ.0646

Gilbert, Jon. “Ian Fleming: the Bibliography”. London: Queen Anne Press, 2012. NAL pressmark: 804.AP.0001

Kent, Stephen. ‘James Bond Gets a Facelift: Designing Paperback Covers for a 1960s Film Phenomenon’ in “One-off: a Collection of Essays by Postgraduate Students on the Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art Course in the History of Design”. London: V&A/RCA, 1997, pp. 32-43. NAL pressmark: NB.98.1169

Silver, Joel. ‘Ian Fleming’ in “Twentieth-Century British Book Collectors and Bibliographers”. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999, pp. 81-88. NAL pressmark: 603.AA.0786

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