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  • Writer's pictureDavid Morris

Book Covers: The Artistic Process of Tom Adams

In 2014, HarperCollins commissioned the artist Tom Adams to create two new covers for a new commemorative box set of Agatha Christie books – The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain. The set was published in 2016. For a detailed review of this set, please use this link. This article focuses on the artwork of Tom Adams - not the books.

These paintings are significant as they are the last two paintings Tom Adams created in his long and illustrious career. While he is arguably most well known for his covers of Agatha Christie books published by Fontana from 1963 until 1980, his artistic output was much broader than Christie alone as discussed in the excellent book Tom Adams Uncovered – The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond written by Tom Adams and John Curran (HarperCollins, 2015).

I chose to write this article because in the upcoming episode of the podcast All About Agatha with Kemper Donovan (going live shortly), I discuss many items in my collection including the two covers Tom Adams created for this 2016 box set, as well as the archival material related to them. This archival material provides a fascinating insight into Tom Adams’ creative process and I hope you find it of interest.

Tom's Design Process.

Over the years, Tom Adams openly talked about his design process and how he would find props to assist in his creative process.  Whether a chess piece he owned to inspire the cover of The Big Four or a small letter opener that was repurposed to be the murder weapon for the cover of Lord Edgware Dies. Below are the actual items he used and the resulting covers.

Cover Roughs & Mock-Ups.

Once commissioned, the design process began with initial ‘cover rough’ designs that were shown to the publisher and Agatha Christie Limited for input at Greenway when Tom was there in June 2014 for the launch of The Greenshore Folly.  Correspondence between Tom and the publisher confirms how the design changed following this meeting through a collaborative process. For example, Tom Adams first iteration included representations of both Poirot and Hastings, something that was removed given the historical position not to illustrate these characters on the covers. Tom also used an image of binoculars that was deemed to give too much away, so it was replaced with a candle, and an idea to include a funeral stretcher was deemed too downbeat. It was replaced with an image of a butterfly. 

After the image structures were agreed to, Tom Adams’s next step was to create smaller mock-ups of the paintings for approval before creating the full size paintings. These mock-up covers are acrylic on board that measure 128mm wide by 195mm high (about the size of a trade edition paperback) and are shown below.  These were provided to the publisher and Agatha Christie Limited to review and for approval.

As you can see on the mock-up for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Tom had fun placing a Fontana logo on the top corner – harkening back to his earlier days and an acknowledgement that he was never able to create covers in the 1960s & 70s for the first six books originally controlled by The Bodley Head.  After these mock-ups were approved Tom then moved on to creating the full size paintings.


Source Material.

In Tom Adams’ archives are images of the source material he used to help create both the mock-ups and the full size paintings.  One of the main design elements – a butterfly – is discussed in his correspondence where he writes “I have a suggestion that came to me in a flash; I was talking about butterflies to an entomologist friend and I suddenly thought why not a top image of a Peacock butterfly representing Poirot’s spirit, flying away beyond the edge of an ethereal gauzy curtain. A lovely positive image in celebration of the proud, immaculate detective.

In his archives are several cut out images of a Peacock butterfly as well as a page from The Observer newspaper (12 Dec 2010) that has a large picture of a Peacock as part of its review of a new BBC2 television show Natural World: Butterflies – A Very British Obsession. Atop the page Tom wrote ‘A/W Ref “Mysterious Affair at Styles” + “Curtain”. Whether he had kept this article for the 3-4 years since it was published or whether it was given to him nearer the time he painted these images is unclear.

Another recurring image between the two covers is the candle – lit for Styles and extinguished for Curtain. The symbolism is clear.  In Tom’s archives are four pictures of candles – two of candlesticks and one aflame and one extinguished. Of note, the image of the lit candle is actually a painting by Gerhard Richter (Candle [Kerze] 1982). Given Tom’s success painting life-like images he was undoubtedly appreciative of Richter’s skill also.

You can see in both the rough mock-ups and the final images how all this source material was skillfully integrated into these paintings.

The Original Paintings & their World War I Influences.

The final paintings are both acrylic on board and measure 235mm wide by 360mm high. They were painted in late 2014 and 2015.  These are the actual paintings below and they are stunning.

The painting for The Mysterious Affair at Styles was completed first so that it could appear in the 2015 book Tom Adams Uncovered (discussed earlier) where John Curran states "over a half-century after his first, it is abundantly clear why the Adams/Christie partnership continues to be so successful.... Masterly." However, as you can see from the image below, the copy shown did not include the war torn scenery behind the stretcher bearers. I speculate that it may have been removed anticipating that the book's title and Christie's name may be placed there - something that did not actually occur once the book was published.

The second cover for Curtain was finished later and not revealed until the box set was published in 2016 - shown below.

A few other items to note for your attention on for these paintings are commented on by Tom in his notes.

Perceptive readers will notice how the house has deteriorated over 50 odd years and has also acquired a TV aerial and the trees have grown substantially.” He continues “A word about the flowers: in Styles it is a bright red begonia (featured in the plot) and in Curtain, a dark sinister red poppy, but they are almost precisely the same shape”. In addition, Tom felt they “emphasise the poignant connection and wartime friendship between Hastings, wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and Poirot the Belgian refugee”.  We also learn from his notes that Tom chose to include a stretcher on the cover of ‘Styles’, which he wrote that he chose to use it to “represent the circumstances of Hastings’ presence as a wounded convalescent at Styles.”

It is also interesting to see in Tom’s notes that he suggested the idea of donating a portion of the box set proceeds to the British Legion since he assumed they would be published near to the 100 year anniversary of the famous battles of 1916 – the Somme and Paschendale. He also thought it fitting that these books should both be published as a tribute to Christie on this significant anniversary.

The Dedicatees of the Paintings.

While not well known, Tom Adams dedicated the two final paintings to the memories of Archie Christie and James Adams. Archie Christie was Agatha’s first husband while James Adams was Tom Adams’ father. Both had similar military careers as they both transferred from the Army to the flying service – Archie to the Royal Flying Corps and James to the Royal Naval Air Service. Both were mentioned in dispatches and decorated. After the war, they both joined the newly created Royal Air Force. Together they make a lovely pair that I am incredibly proud of having in my collection along with the original books given to Tom and signed by John Curran and Mathew Prichard, Agatha’s grandson, who states "For Tom, they are wonderful"


I hope you found this insight into the creative process of Tom’s work interesting. If this sort of background material is of interest or if you have other ideas for topics, don't hesitate to reach out to me at .

For those interested in acquiring the box set that has these two images on them, it is now out of print so you will need to find a used copy.  They do show up for sale online though are quite uncommon as the total print run was certainly smaller than typical hardback books.

Other News.

As mentioned earlier, the next episode of Kemper Donovan's podcast "All About Agatha" (planned mid-July 2024) will be the recording I made with him a few months ago in which we talk about the world of collecting. I hope you'll enjoy it as I had fun sharing with Kemper a small sampling of my collection and discussing the items I brought including the archival material shown above.

I also know many of you have listened to the podcast "Tea and Murder" - part interview show and part book club - that I recently participated on. Thank you for the positive comments about the show. If you haven't yet listened to it you can via this link.

Coming up this summer, I authored an article for the Shubert Theater Group that will be published based on my discoveries on previously undocumented Agatha Christie play scripts of Ten Little Indians and The Hollow used for the US market in the 1940s and 1950s. Once that's published, I arrange to share a copy online for all of you.

Lastly, the International Agatha Christie Festival is now only 8 weeks away and I'm excited to share my presentation on The Art and Artists of Agatha Christie. I can't wait to share it with those in attendance. After the festival, I will convert much of it to an article or two to share with those who can't attend in person.

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1 commento

4 days ago

Wow, thanks for this! I would not have understood the significance of the butterfly, I'm afraid, but found it quite a satisfying explanation. I had noticed the change in the house (and grounds), which further emphasizes the thought that went into these. A worthy illustrator of Christie.

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