The Atmospheric Railway

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The Atmospheric Railway
By Shena Mackay
Jacket illustration by Jonny Hannah
Jonathan Cape, 2008

The jacket of Shena Mackay’s collection of short stories The Atmospheric Railway was one of last year’s most striking and beautiful covers. The artwork is by Jonny Hannah, a Scottish printmaker whose work was shown at last year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

The most immediately appealing aspect of the design is the typography, which mixes imposing upper-case fonts with more informal lower case “handwriting”-style lettering. The only pictorial element is rather muted. You have to look closely to see the row of five circular vignettes – images such as the old Crystal Palace and Isambard Kingdom Brunel – which refer to moments in the book’s title story.

Though set in the present day, this tale is largely concerned with potent symbols of the past such as these, and Hannah’s illustrative style fits the theme perfectly. His design, he says, was inspired by old railway signs, and the film poster for Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, with its dramatic letters trailing long shadows – but you can see hints of those classic 1930s travel posters too.

Hannah works on paper, and then in Photoshop, which he says is very much like printmaking in that he builds images layer by layer, one colour at a time. So, like printing, the computer can produce what he calls “happy accidents” – one of which occurred during this particular piece: “I flooded the entire image in a pale pink by accident. It instantly gave it a warm tint that I loved. So it stayed.”

The element that gives this cover its impact is the way text and images are on a strong diagonal gradient, cut across by the opposing diagonal shadows. This could be another reference to the Atmospheric Railway, which operated briefly in Crystal Palace Park in the 1860s, ferrying tourists up and down the hill. But this injection of severity into the design rightly suggests that the stories inside are more serious than the curly lettering might lead you to believe.

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