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How the illustrator of Ian Fleming's novels felt conned out of vast royalties

04-Apr-2010 • Literary

They are cool, sophisticated and exude an air of elegant menace - not unlike 007 himself.

Richard Chopping's stylish covers for Ian Fleming's James Bond novels undoubtedly contributed to the success of the series, which sold more than 100 million copies, yet the artist eventually fell out with the author, claiming he had been 'swindled' -- reports the Daily Mail.

Now a fascinating archive of correspondence between the pair is going on sale in New York at an auction devoted to British espionage and thriller fiction.

Although Chopping's anxieties about copyright are mentioned, the letters give no hint at the resentment he ultimately felt towards Fleming when he declared: 'Mr Fleming was not a nice man to work for. He was mean.'

He complained: 'The paintings I did for his dust jackets are now worth thousands and they sold as many books. But he would not even let me have my royalties. Quite honestly, I'm sick to death of it all.'

Chopping completed nine covers, beginning with From Russia With Love in 1957. They were reproduced from watercolours that each took a month to paint.

On March 18, 1959, Fleming wrote to Chopping referring to the Goldfinger cover and his upcoming work For Your Eyes Only.

'The new jacket is quite as big a success as the first one and I do think Cape [Fleming's publisher Jonathan Cape] have made a splendid job of it...I am busily scratching my head trying to think of a subject for you again. No one in the history of thrillers has had such a totally brilliant artistic collaborator!'

In another letter, Fleming wrote: 'First of all a thousand congratulations on the new jacket. It is quite in your topmost class and Annie [Fleming's wife] loves it also. You and I are really a wonderful team.'

On July 20, 1960, Fleming asked Chopping if he would illustrate his next book, Thunderball, for 200 guineas, which was an extremely generous fee for the time.

After the artist agreed, Fleming wrote again on August 4, 1960, saying: 'Dear Dickie. Warmest thanks for your charming letter of July 29, and I am delighted that you will have a bash at the new jacket.

'I will ask Michael Howard [of Jonathan Cape] to produce an elegant skeleton hand and an elegant Queen of Hearts. As to the dagger, I really have no strong views. I had thought of the ordinary flick knife as used by teenagers on people like you and me, but if you have a nice dagger in mind please let us use it.

The title of the book will be Thunderball. It is immensely long, immensely dull and only your jacket can save it!'

Thunderball was the ninth Bond book and it went on sale in 1961. The first print run was 50,938 copies. Two first-edition uncorrected proofs are on offer in the New York sale with a reserve price of between £800 and £1,200.

Fleming mulled over every detail for the jackets. On August 18, 1960, he insisted: 'Two cards will definitely be better than one, and the second card should be an ace - perhaps the Ace of Spades - if you can bear the additional labour.

'Secondly, I think, unless you feel otherwise, that the Queen of Diamonds would be better that the Queen of Hearts as money is a keynote of the book.' The finished dust jacket showed the cards with a skeletal hand over them. A flick knife placed between the fingers pins the cards to the table.

But gathering props wasn't entirely straightforward as Chopping's insistence on authenticity often led to problems.

A skeletal arm was procured from a medical supplier and a diamond had to be borrowed from the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa - but most troublesome of all was a toad for the cover of You Only Live Twice.

Howard wrote to Chopping on July 17, 1963: 'I have had a talk with Ian about the ideas for the ingredients of this design. He is very much in favour of the toad...but with a suitable array of oriental embellishrangment, i.e. toad plus Japanese flower arrangements, which he thinks should be sitting in a suitable piece of Japanese pottery, perhaps ornamented with a dragon motif.

'If you could manage a pink dragonfly sitting on the flowers, and perhaps just one epicanthic eye peering through them he thinks that will be just splendid!

'An ordinary country toad . . . will do perfectly well, he says, but make sure it really is a toad and not a common frog, and try to get that deep red glow that one sees burning in their eyes at twilight.'

He added: 'If in difficulties over toads there is a place in Camden Town which supplies almost any live creature to order, so maybe they could help. I think you would probably need to keep one to sit for you to ensure the right degree of inflation. Any dead ones I've ever seen looked awfully flat.'

In his reply Chopping wrote: 'I decided it might be quicker (which it hasn't been) and more interesting (which it certainly has been) to try to trap the toad myself.

'I therefore up the Colchester Natural History-Museum curator who broke the terrible news to me that for various reasons, known and unknown, the frog and toad population of these islands has very much diminished and that toads have now become extremely rare.'

He described a day-long expedition armed with tins, rubber boots and a substantial picnic to try to find a toad.

'We pressed on, hidden quite often by high reeds, stung by nettles, scratched by thistles and brambles, bitten by every conceivable kid of pestilential fly, until my companion admitted after about a mile that we were in the wrong place.'

Finally Chopping found one and said it had 'that authentic red glint in its eye. Hurrah'.

After buying two ounces of meal worms to keep the toad alive, Chopping attempted to draw it.

'I have done 16 drawings of it in the last hour as it waltzed around a saucer lined with wet blotting paper under a Victorian glass dome, and set on a revolving table so that I can attempt to get it back to the position I have started on.'

Towards the end of the letter to Howard, he became more businesslike. 'I don't know now what to do about Ian and the American fee. You have made me feel rather guilty (not a difficult thing to do) and alarmed about his state of health.

'I shall probably leave it for the moment and then in the end do nothing about it. I am sorry if it complicates matters for you if I insist on retaining the copyright but I do want to do so.'

In an unrelated, casual note Howard wrote to Chopping: 'I thought I might see you at that jamboree for the premiere of Dr No but I couldn't catch a glimpse of you in the theatre and I didn't go on to the bunfight afterwards as Ian warned us it would be a terrible scrum.'

By 1965, the year after Fleming's death, when Chopping did a painting for the cover of Octopussy And The Living Daylights, his fee had increased to 350 guineas.

But as the Bond brand flourished, he felt more exploited. In July 2003 he auctioned the last of his printer's proofs and a signed copy of Thunderball. He said he was 'sick of the whole thing', and described Fleming as 'charming but horrid'.

Chopping resented the fact that he wasn't paid a commission on the books sold and that his watercolours remained the property of the author. 'They would be worth a great deal of money now,' he wrote.

'They were passed into Fleming's family when he died and then sold. I borrowed some of them for a retrospective exhibition in Aldeburgh, but I don't even know who has got them now.'

Chopping died in April 2008, aged 91. But while Fleming's name endures, the man who played no small part in his early success is now a footnote in Bond history.

The Otto Penzler Collection Of British Espionage And Thriller Fiction will be auctioned on April 8 at the Swann Galleries in New York.

View the Chopping/Fleming lot on Swann Galleries Auction House.

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