David Larkin obituary

Other lives: Art director in the book publishing trade who was committed to nurturing new talent

My brother David Larkin, who has died aged 84, was an art director in the book publishing industry who consistently pushed artists to go beyond their known capabilities – and often saw things in them that they did not themselves perceive.

In the late 1960s, as art director at Granada Publishing, David discovered and nurtured lots of new talent, including the ex-docker John Holmes, who illustrated Germaine Greer’s iconic Female Eunuch cover from David’s initial idea, and numerous others who went on to become art directors themselves – among them Dom Rodi, Cherry McGill, Pat Mortimore, Mike Jarvis and Steve Abis.

Cover of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – based on an initial idea from David Larkin
Cover of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – based on an initial idea from David Larkin Photograph: PR

Later on, in the early 70s at Pan Books, David was part of the team that created the Picador imprint and he gave Pan Paperbacks a shot in the arm and a fresh identity, bringing in a new logo and using young talent for cover designs.

David was born in Dagenham, Essex, to Albert Larkin, a plumber, and Ellen (nee London). From an early age he had a natural left-handed gift with a pencil and crayon, and during the second world war would sketch perfect Spitfires and Messerschmitts under candlelight in the air-raid shelter at the bottom of the family garden. When the war ended he often took a pencil and sketchpad into the surrounding Essex marshes.

After leaving school, he was recommended by his art teacher, who had recognised his talent, to a colleague at Studio Erwin – a jobbing art studio in London – and he was initially taken on there as a messenger.

In 1956, he was called up for national service and posted to Northern Ireland, where he spent two years in the army’s cartography department, preparing maps for manoeuvres. Afterwards he joined Pulford Publicity art studio in Fleet Street, London, in 1958, doing paste up and pencil layouts for film posters.

In 1963 he moved on to Panther Books as a designer, preparing finished cover layouts, commissioning work from other artists and doing the occasional cover illustration himself. By 1969 he had become art director at Granada Publishing, which by then had acquired Panther Books and several hardback imprints.

In 1972 David was headhunted to join Pan Books and in 1980 he moved to the US, setting up David Larkin Books, often working in association with the US publisher Ian Ballantine. By then David had achieved major success with the Fantastic Art series, Faeries, Giants, Shaker and countless coffee-table books including Barn, Mill, Farm and the Country Wisdom series. He regarded his final book, When Art Worked, as his finest work.

In 1981, he married Sabra Elliott, an American who worked at Ballantine Books, remaining in the US for the rest of his life. Two previous marriages ended in divorce. David never retired but health issues curtailed his work in recent years.

He is survived by Sabra, two daughters from his first marriage, a daughter from his second marriage, three grandchildren and me.

Colin Larkin

The GuardianTramp

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