Art & Photography

Matt Taylor Draws John Le Carré

Ahead of the 50th Anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Brighton illustrator Matt Taylor tells Alex Jackson about his favourite John Le Carré book cover designs for Penguin


Approached by Penguin in 2011 to pitch on cover art for John Le Carré’s Our Kind Of Traitor (plus four from his back catalogue), illustrator Matt Taylor won the commission. So successful were Taylor’s designs he was asked back to design a further 14 Le Carré book and audio book covers for Penguin USA, and the forthcoming 50th Anniversary edition of Le Carré’s 1963 classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Here, published by Penguin this summer. Matt talks Port through his five favourite designs.

John Le Carré had just come over to Penguin after spending his whole career with a previous publisher, so they were looking for something bold and different to make the new editions stand out. I’d never read a Le Carré before so I didn’t really have any preconceived notions of how they should look – I just wanted to make something that looked good. I think it was better for my process that I was new to Le Carré as I didn’t feel beholden to prior interpretations of the characters in any other media and could just let the text speak for itself.


This was the first cover I did and it set the tone for the rest of my work. I produced somewhere in the region of 10-15 sketches, trying to find both the right way of representing the story with an image that wasn’t necessarily a direct lift of a scene from the book, as well as trying to find a style I could happily keep consistent across a number of illustrations.

Some early sketches were wildly off base – there’s one of a Minotaur playing tennis that, in retrospect, would’ve been a difficult theme to push through the other books. Though we’d settled on the concept of the hand on the shoulder – ominous, yet comforting – quite early on, initial versions of the cover were more detailed but I gradually stripped-back the image, making it bolder and more stylised. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of my favourites because of what it represents and because it was successful enough to keep me working on the series!


This was originally done as an audiobook cover and as such is quite sparse in its detail but I think better for it.

Because of the relatively small space to work in I had to really focus on finding a way to convey the relationships between the characters and the driving moment of the story concisely. Despite my concern it wouldn’t work as well for the bigger, book, size, it actually ended up being one of my favourites of the UK editions.


It’s a close call between this and Tinker Tailor for a favourite as far as the George Smiley books go, but this one pips it. I’d settled on a motif of Smiley following/hunting Karla for the three books in the series, but wanted something more dramatic than the crowd scene I’d done for Tinker Tailor.

Of all the Le Carré books I’ve covered this was the only one that defeated me in terms of finishing reading it. I was struggling with deadlines and the density of the writing, so I had to resort to Wikipedia for a synopsis of the second half. On top of that, after submitting the sketch, I realised that the dragon would be very complicated to draw – again, not helping my deadlines, but my own fault for sketching it in the first place. So it felt like everything was against this cover. Somehow it all came together in the drawing and I was really happy with how it turned out; I think the balance of elements on the page against the type works really well.


The publishing schedule meant I worked on a number of novels from the middle of Le Carré’s backlist first. By the time I came to this – one of his first – I was surprised by both the brevity and tone of the writing. There isn’t much to say about this cover apart from that I was really happy with it. While employed full-time in a design studio, it was nice to come home and work on this cover as a palette cleanser to the things I was doing in my day job.

This was the first book I covered after the initial batch and the first time that I was completely comfortable with the style and tone I was working in – previous covers were done semi-concurrently and I was still finding my feet. That, and the combination of having to quickly read the novels and turn around sketches with my mind on both the next and last title meant I was flying by the seat of my pants. A lot. With The Spy I was able to read the book at a slightly gentler pace and really focus on it. I think it also stands apart from the first few books in that it’s a mostly light coloured cover, whereas the first batch were quite dark. My favourite bit of the drawing is the awkward positioning of the feet and the suggestion of blood on the snow – it’s the little things that stand out to me.

The 50th Anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, including Le Carré’s introduction, “Fifty Years Later”, is published by Penguin on 1 August. See more of Matt’s work here