For many fans of Agatha Christie, the cover art on the Fontana books from the 1960s-70s is what initially drew many to read her books. Most of this art was done by cover artist Tom Adams. The cover of Agatha Christie’s “The Big Four” was painted in 1965 in order to provide Fontana with the one of the pieces of cover art needed for titles they were publishing that year.
The Design Process: Most of the covers were essentially still life paintings with a central focal point. Tom would read the book several times to help him find inspiration often set up the scene in his studio, sometimes using items he had in his home. In this case Tom latched onto The Chess Problem (chapter 11) as a central theme for the cover art. Tom had in his home two replica pieces of the “Lewis Chessmen” (see photo). Since Fontana specifically only wanted a single focal point he chose one of them and built his image from that. Of note, you can see the subtle design changes the artist made - instead of holding a book (bible?) as the actual figure does, Tom changed the image to show the chess piece holding up four fingers - further connecting with the title of the book. He also merged the two images together - placing the Bishop the chair of the other piece. Perhaps his artistic rebuff to Fontana to only use one of them on the cover!
For the dragon, he used the Imperial Dragon, last used on the flag of China in 1912 during the Qing Dynasty, the last great imperial dynasty of China. Together these two items were blended together to make one of his iconic covers – considered by many to enhance the book which was one of Christie’s weaker offerings. In the book Tom Adams’ Agatha Christie Cover Story Tom states: 'The chess piece is one of the bishops in the now famous walrus ivory set excavated on the island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland.' In the book Tom Adams Uncovered he further adds: 'I’m not sure which way round it is but Japanese and Chinese dragons have three and four claws apiece on each foot, but the Imperial Chinese dragon, as shown here, has five claws!' These two citations are combined on the summary label affixed to the rear of the painting’s frame, left over from an exhibition.
The Lewis Chessmen: As a little background on the chess pieces, they were first shown in 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland. These 12th century handcrafted pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth have since become iconic examples of our lasting love for wargames. When found, the hoard contained 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen and one belt buckle. Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum in London, and the remaining 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Value: While this painting is in a private collection, similar iconic images have been sold privately and publicly which helps define pricing. Value today would be estimated at around £7,000 - £10,000 ($9,000 - $13,000 US). Original pieces by Tom are highly collectible and do occasionally show up for sale at auction, though many transactions are handled privately. If you want one, make connections and ask around. Also follow our twitter feed (@collectchristie) as if one ever shows up at a public auction we will certainly profile it there. A far more affordable way to enjoy this image is to find a used copy of the Fontana paperback from 1965 onwards. Those can be found for £3 - £10 depending on condition.