There’s a Ghost in My House: Ionicus Book Covers, 1973 – 1988

Exhibit / October 15, 2018

Object Name: Ionicus book cover illustrations
Maker and Year: Ionicus, William Kimber & Co Books, 1973-1988
Object Type: Illustrations
Image Source: The Haunted Library, The Common Swings
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Ionicus—the nom de plume of prolific British illustrator Joshua Charles Armitage—is probably best known for his cover illustrations for Penguin Books’ P. G. Wodehouse reissues and magazine The Dalesman, as well as the many cartoons he contributed to Punch magazine. But it is his work for London publishing house William Kimber & Co that may best represent his legacy.

Previously specializing in WWII and racing car driver memoirs, William Kimber & Co entered the ghost story field after the unexpected success of its 1973 book Haunted Cornwall (later republished by New English Library with a cover by Ian Miller). Over the following 15 years, the company published dozens of ghost story anthologies featuring cover art by Ionicus. William Kimber published its books as costly hardback editions, meaning that most of us would only have ever encountered them in the context of the shared public space par excellence, the public or school library, which was perfectly suited to their formalized, slightly institutional representation of the supernatural.

For some reason, Ionicus’s stiff, mannered compositions—which, in the context of his Wodehouse and Dalesman covers, can seem so lifeless and stifling that they are actually irritating—lent themselves perfectly to communicating the eeriness of haunted spaces: paradoxically, Ionicus’s pictures come to life when there are no humans in them. In this milieu, their stilted, formalist compositions, and the odd stillness of the deserted vistas they offer up, capture perfectly something important about the British idea of the supernatural.

In fact, their beautifully rendered landscapes, as uninhabited as empty stage sets, evoke one of the underpinnings of the uncanny: that these places continue to exist without any sign of the human life that necessitated their existence. The lights in the windows and open doors, hinting at recent occupancy, only make this idea more poignant. In our enduring constructions and domesticated landscapes, it is humanity that is the impermanence—to some extent, already a spectre. Perhaps our obsession with ghosts contains a tacit admission of this fact.

4 thoughts on “There’s a Ghost in My House: Ionicus Book Covers, 1973 – 1988

  1. I’ve certainly never found them “stiff and mannered”, definitely not “irritating”. They’re too interesting for that. I’m here because I spent so much time looking at, and looking at again, his illustrations on the covers of the PG Wodehouse books that I have. About as stilted and mannered as Lowry’s paintings.

    • De gustibus isn’t it, felicitatum? I’ve always deeply disliked the way he drew people while finding his drawings of places profoundly compelling. And personally I find Lowry’s human figures far more expressive and powerful.

      • After several months, and re-reading PGW during covid, I too find them irritating, so I take that back. Not all of them, but I’d change a few things myself. Lowry is in a different class altogether. The best illustration I’ve seen on a PGW book, and I don’t have my phone camera – is on a 66 edition of Laughing Gas. I looked all over for the illustrator, excellent sort of loose rendering of American newspapermen, and finally found out that he was a comic book artist. I’ll put up a photo of it when I find the book, and the phone/camera.

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