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Remembering Margaret Paull, HarperCollins’s influential art director

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The Globe and Mail criticized Paull’s edition of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town for “misconception of local geography”

In 1944, Margaret V. Paull completed her course work at the Ontario College of Art, graduating with honours in illustration, lettering, costume, and anatomy. She joined the Lord & Thomas advertising firm, and seemed set for a career in that burgeoning field. But Franklin Carmichael, the youngest member of the original Group of Seven, who had mentored Paull at school, recommended her for a position as a cover designer at William Collins, Sons in downtown Toronto, where Paull would embark on a long and influential career in Canadian publishing.

Carmichael, who at one time shared a workspace with Tom Thomson and was best known for watercolours that now command tens of thousands of dollars at auction, had collaborated with the company on a few projects, including Grace Campbell’s The Thorn-Apple Tree (1942) and The Higher Hill (1944). Paull began designing covers with a flair and style that reflected both the period and her own innate ability to convey raw emotion. Still only in her mid-20s, Paull illustrated eight covers a month, and at least 67 in total over her first four years at the company.

In those early days, Paull designed covers primarily for the White Circle imprint, a now-defunct commercial line of paperbacks – mainly mysteries, cowboy stories, romances, and wartime thrillers that sold for a quarter. One of her first covers, for David Rame’s Tunnel from Calais (No. 74 in the White Circle series), featured a swastika casting a shadow over a tunnel and white-etched cliffs, with German and British planes facing off alongside the type. The cover demonstrates Paull’s expert use of colour and typography, as well as the dramatic panache that would compel a wartime audience to part with 25 cents in austere times. More often, Paull illustrated covers for romantic intrigues and westerns, with crisply uniformed Mounties and rugged woodsmen in flannel beguiled by calculated beauties or hovering over wide-eyed, helpless ladies. Paull’s covers from this period demonstrate a strong use of colour and feature the fashions and hairstyles of the day, with just the right amount of menace. She would often tuck away her signature, “M. Paull,” in the corner.

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From left: Charles Sweeny, editorial and production, Franklin Appleton, publisher, and Paull, circa the mid-1940s.

Paull illustrated covers for a few classics under the White Circle imprint, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Stephen Leacock’s Literary Lapses and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Having entirely missed the publication of the White Circle edition Paull had illustrated a few years earlier, The Globe and Mail hailed a rival publisher’s new edition of Sunshine Sketches for bringing Leacock to a new audience. In his correction, William Arthur Deacon criticized Paull’s illustration for showing “some misconception of local geography,” saying she had placed Mariposa on the wrong lake, and claiming that “such an exhibition of artistic license is intolerable.” In truth, Paull embellished elements of Mariposa for maximum commercial impact in a charming and warm representation of Leacock’s work.

In addition to her other duties, Paull art directed photographic covers showcasing local models, including a former Miss Toronto. In a 1947 feature on these photo shoots, Quill & Quire reported that when “the models arrive, which quite frequently is a little late, one of the privileges of beauty, they are told what sort of character they are to portray, and various poses and expressions are shot. If costumes are necessary, or outside props, a rough sketch is drawn by Miss Margaret Paull, White Circle Art Director, and the models and studio assistants try to fill the requirements as accurately as possible.”

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Paull’s last cover for White Circle – for Margery Sharp’s The Flowering Thorn – went to press in 1947. She would continue to illustrate other titles, notably A.J. Elliott’s The Aging Nymph, which was selected alongside only two other jackets for display at the First Annual Exhibition of Canadian Advertising and Editorial Art held at Eaton’s Fine Art Galleries in Toronto in 1949, and Hugh MacLennan’s The Precipice, which won the 1948 Governor General’s Award for fiction. She also created original linocuts for the covers of Collins catalogues, of which The Globe and Mail said: “Canadian publishing advances by increasing care in such details.”

Paull’s manner, as with her artwork, demonstrated grace and care for her craft. In response to a charged letter from a reader about a “dismal grammatical error” in “second-rate copy” for John Fowles’s Daniel Martin (the kind of letter every publisher has received at some point in their career), Paull responded, “Your letter just made my day. That is not meant sarcastically but just to say that it is both witty and constructive. … You are perfectly right the error is inexcusable.”

John Clark, who recently retired from HarperCollins (formed from the merger of William Collins with Harper & Row in 1989) after nearly four decades with the company, worked with Paull for the eight years before her retirement. Clark remembers her “striding through the warehouse” at 100 Lesmill Rd. “She was a very nice person, quite diplomatic, hardworking, and fiercely independent,” says Clark. He remembers her as a “great walker” who would routinely march marathon-length distances. During one sales conference north of Toronto in the dead of winter, a group of Collins staff started out on a trek along the shore of an icy lake, but only Paull and Clark finished the hike.

Paull would continue to oversee the cover designs of other artists, and also manage Collins’s editorial and publicity, until her retirement in 1985, after 42 years with the company. In addition to her impressive body of work, Paull co-founded the Book Promotion and Editorial Club and sat on various committees of the Canadian Book Publishers Council. She also was the first woman to chair the Book Publishers’ Association of Canada.

Paull never slowed down, hiking and snowshoeing her way across central Ontario long after her retirement, and would donate land to what would become the Bruce Trail. (A side trail south of Collingwood bears her name.) She died in Toronto on March 29, 2008, at the age of 88.

Margaret Paull left an impression on Canadian publishing as a pioneering illustrator and designer, and as a woman in a profession crowded at the top with men. As she told Quill & Quire in 1985, while reflecting on her career at retirement: “You care about what you publish and you care all the way along. If you don’t, it’s not going to work.”

Jim Gifford is editorial director, non-fiction, at HarperCollins in Toronto. Over his 20-year career in publishing, he has acquired and edited many number-one bestsellers and award-winning titles by Canadian and international authors. The author of Hurricane Hazel: Canada’s Storm of the Century (Dundurn, 2004) and a contributor to 100 Days That Changed Canada (HarperCollins, 2011), Gifford has also written for such publications as Canada’s History, Quill & Quire, and Where Toronto.