The Penguin publishing house was founded in 1935 and by the outbreak of war in 1939 it was already very successful. Walter Neurath, an Austrian Jewish refugee, had the idea of printing a series of books, based on the model of the German Insel Verlag series, consisting of attractive pocket books. Allen Lane of Penguin Books took up the idea and christened the series King Penguin, so as to distinguish it from his other paperbacks. The first two titles British Birds and A Book of Roses were published in 1939 and Lane knew immediately that he had a winner.
The covers of the King Penguin series played a big part in the success of the series and some of the covers are little works of art. One of the very popular ones is English Ballet printed in 1944, the trademark Penguin on the spine has been dressed up in a tutu. The fact that a third of each book was taken up by illustrations and images and that there were well-produced plates, often in colour proved very popular with the readers.
The series first editor, Elizabeth Senior, was sadly killed in a London air raid in 1941 and Penguin appointed a young German refugee, Nikolaus Pevsner, as the new editor. He recruited artists like Edward Bawden, John Piper and Barbara Jones to do the illustrations. Their work is very collectable and if you want to collect King Penguin Books you should look out for Bawden’s Life in an English Village, Piper’s Romney Marsh and Jones’ Isle of Wight.
The topics covered sometimes bordered on the eccentric – The Leaves of Southwell, a study of the medieval carvings in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, written by Nikolaus Pevsner with photographs by FL Attenborough, father of David and Richard, was beautifully produced, but Pevsner admitted himself that it had been a spectacularly bad seller. The titles though seemed to matter less than the format of the books and people would buy titles they would not otherwise have read, because it was a King Penguin.
Although these books were written with children from age 12 upwards, they were nonetheless discussed in academic journals and even the American Shakespeare Quarterly gave a very favourable review to Elizabethan Miniatures, which was one of the best selling King Penguins of all times.
Unfortunately, rising production costs eventually put an end to the King Penguin series and the final title, The Sculpture of the Parthenon, was published in 1959. King Penguins were published in large numbers and none of them are really rare, so it is not difficult to find them. You should always find several in good second hand or antiquarian book shops. If you are lucky enough, you might find a copy signed by the author or illustrator and that would push the value up a bit, but the good news is that King Penguins are very affordable. They seldom cost more than £15 and most of them can be found for under £10. You should expect to pay between £100 – £200 for a signed copy. If you ever find a full set of all 76 titles it would probably cost somewhere between £600 and £700.
You should pay attention to the condition of the book and also whether it is a first edition or a reprint. If you look on the back of the title page check whether it says ‘second’ or ‘revised’ edition. If it does not, it is probably a first edition. King Penguins printed after 1949 were issued with a paper dust jacket, identical to the cover, so you should check that it is present. As always, check out your local car boot sales and auction rooms, as well as internet auctions and dealers. Good luck in your hunt for King Penguin Books.