James Bond cover art goes on display

April 21, 2008 6:37:05 PM PDT
Before James Bond became a screen icon, he was a paperback hero.

A new exhibition of 007 book covers charts the changing image of the suave British spy and his world of fast cars, luxury casinos and alluring women.

Ranging from the 1950s to the present day and spanning the globe - there are Bond books in English, German, Japanese, Greek, Hebrew and even an Italian comic-book version - the artwork reveals how Bond's unique brand of glamour has been adapted to widely differing times and places.

"The books have been in print since they were first published, and have now been printed in almost every language," said Selina Skipwith, curator of "Bond Bound: Ian Fleming and the Art of Cover Design." The show opens Tuesday at the Fleming Collection gallery in London.

She said the covers "are a great survey of taste, and of what was permissible. The U.S. is much happier with guns, while the Europeans are much more relaxed about nudity."

The earliest cover, from the 1955 paperback edition of Bond's debut, "Casino Royale," shows a strangely bland Bond, bow-tied and with a carnation in his buttonhole, seated at a poker table.

Later covers are slicker and racier - near-naked women, gleaming guns and glimmering diamonds are popular motifs.

"Once you get into the late '60s, the covers get more and more glamorous," Skipwith said. "Then with the rise of feminism, the glamorous ladies disappear."

But only for a time. The newest covers in the show - Michael Gillette's designs for an upcoming Penguin reissue of the series - feature naked female forms, stylized and given a deliberately retro feel.

The exhibition is one of several events marking the centenary of the birth of Bond's creator, Ian Fleming. It is being staged at the Fleming Collection, a gallery in London's affluent Mayfair district - Bond would feel right at home - which houses art from Flemings investment bank, founded by the writer's grandfather.

Drawing on Fleming memorabilia from collectors around the world, the exhibition also includes film posters, original manuscript pages, correspondence between Fleming and his publishers, and letters to readers. The items reveal Fleming to have been both conscientious and playful at answering fan mail.

In one letter, he reassures a worried reader that Bond - poisoned with blowfish venom in the cliffhanger ending of "From Russia With Love" - will soon be fit for duty. Meanwhile, a fan letter from Playboy publisher Hugh Heffner suggests Bond - or Fleming himself - might like to pay a visit to the Playboy Mansion.

Ajay Chowdhury, editor of Bond fan magazine Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, welcomed the exhibition's focus on Fleming's books, overshadowed by the hugely popular film franchise and often dismissed - even by Fleming himself - as mere potboilers.

"We think of Bond in terms of the films but the root of it is in the novels," Chowdhury said. "They are not just action techno-thrillers. They are very much about relationships. Fleming disparaged them as mere thrillers, but he put a lot of his soul in them."

"Bond Bound" is at the Fleming Collection in London until June 28, and will travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, New York and Los Angeles later this year.