Mary Gernat (1926 - 1998) was probably one of the most prolific cover artists of the 1960s. She was born in Ewell, Surrey in 1926, and trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Kingsway and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Mary had a large family, and combined looking after them with working as a freelance illustrator from home via an agent. Her family of four sons and a daughter were often, her son told me, “pressed into service as models”. Although she did not ride herself, she particularly enjoyed painting ponies. During her time as a illustrator, she provided many paperback covers for Collins’ paperback imprint, Armada as well as for the Atlantic Publishing Co (Dragon) in the 1960s. Mary’s son Roger told me she met Enid Blyton, whose paperback editions she illustrated, but she was not enamoured by her, and found her an “odd person”. Mary Gernat suffered from multiple sclerosis during later life, which though it affected her mobility, did not affect her art. After she stopped working commercially, she carried on painting around Lymington, where her family lived. Her son Roger said:
“Painting was my Mum's life and even when she stopped commercial painting, she carried on around our area, producing 1-2 paintings a day for 30 years or so. I am a woodworker and it is very common to see my mum's pictures hanging in the houses that I get work in.”
Mary Gernat’s sketchy, energetic style is probably familiar to nearly every child who bought a paperback book in the 1960s. The range of titles she provided covers for was wide, from Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s, Mallory Towers and The Mystery of... series through countryside stories like Monica Edwards to Malcolm Saville’s adventures. It’s probably fair to say she is better known as a cover artist than as an illustrator, although she did illustrate many children’s books. As an illustrator of Sheila McCullagh’s Pirate and other early reader series, her illustrations were probably an intrinsic part of many children’s early reading efforts.
She had a very distinctive, sketchy style, which was well suited to situations full of action. I am particularly fond of her cover for the 1960s Armada printing of I Carried The Horn, which I think wonderfully captures the awful tension of the moment. Mary Gernat was good at capturing that moment, if not always so good at anatomical accuracy!
Tracking down which covers Mary Gernat was responsible for is complicated. The fact she produced covers rather than internal illustrations means it is particularly difficult to track down exactly what she did, as for many books Armada and Dragon tended to keep the original internal illustrations, and it’s the internal illustrator who tends to be listed at the copyright libraries, and rarely a separate cover artist.
Her covers are often confused with those of Peter Archer, an artist frequently used by Collins/Armada, so it’s worth checking if it’s important to you who did what. The two styles are quite similar, and the cover artist is not always credited, or even, in the case of Monica Edwards’ Cargo of Horses, credited to the wrong artist: although the artist credit is Peter Archer, the style looks much more like Mary Gernat. Tracking titles down then can sometimes be a case of simply following your instincts.
Thank you to Roger How for giving me permission to use these images of Mary Gernat’s work.
Links and sources
Many thanks to Mary Gernat’s family for providing biographical information.