Richard Chopping: Versatile illustrator best known for his distinctive Bond book jackets

Richard Chopping is probably best known today as the creator of dust-jackets for the publisher Jonathan Cape's Ian Fleming James Bond novels. From Russia with Love (1957), with its pistol and flower design, the skull and rose for Goldfinger (1959), and the slightly eerie spyhole and Ian Fleming's name-plate artwork for For Yours Eyes Only (1960) are distinctively Chopping's work.

The creator of these confections, with their meticulous attention to detail and delicacy of colour, was, however, much more than a book-jacket designer. By the time they appeared, Chopping had established a reputation as a versatile illustrator who was noted for his depictions of natural objects such as butterflies, flowers, insects and fruit, based on close observation, as well as being a sympathetic teacher, busy exhibitor and author.

Richard Wasey Chopping was born in 1917 in Colchester, Essex – Wasey was an old family name. His father was an entrepreneurial businessman from a milling family, was himself a miller and store owner and eventually became mayor of Colchester. Chopping's twin brother died when young. He also had an older brother, a pilot killed on a Pathfinder mission over Europe in the Second World War.

Chopping began painting as a small boy, encouraged by his art master at Gresham's School, at Holt, in Norfolk. The future composer Benjamin Britten and spy Donald Maclean were his contemporaries at Gresham's, and Britten remained a friend.

In the late 1930s Chopping attended the London Theatre Studio and learned stage design under Michel St Denis. Next, and important to him, came his period as student, cook and housekeeper at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing run by Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. They had opened the school in 1937, and it was eventually based for many years at Benton End near Hadleigh, in Suffolk. Lucian Freud, who had enrolled in the early summer of 1939, was another student of this unique school.

At this rural paradise, Morris and Haines aimed to "provide an environment where students can work together with more experienced artists in a common endeavour to produce sincere painting". Morris, a great plantsman, created a wonderful garden. Chopping learned a great deal from him, as much through observation as direct instruction.

Morris painted a fine portrait of Chopping in 1941, his subject dark-haired, sloe-eyed, duffel-coated and alert. It was included in the Tate Gallery's 1984 Morris exhibition, illustrated in the catalogue.

From 1942 until 1949, Chopping was able to use his great abilities as a plant draughtsman working on Penguin Books' projected 22-volume flora of the British Isles. Chopping would draw every flower, the Bloomsbury writer Frances Partridge supplying the accompanying text. But Allen Lane had over-stretched himself on this, one of Penguin's great failures. The plug was pulled after seven years, by which time the project had only got as far as the end of the letter C.

From the early 1950s Chopping was able to pass on his knowledge of plant drawing to others as a part-time teacher at Colchester School of Art. He left in 1961 to teach at the Royal College of Art, where he was incidentally a popular feature of the end-of-term Christmas stage shows. Chopping worked under the Marquess of Queensberry in the ceramic department, where his plant-drawing skills and ability to paint butterflies and flowers on porcelain were much valued.

He eventually transferred to the general studies course teaching creative writing and continued with this until his retirement aged 65. When in 1959 he shared an exhibition at the Minories, Colchester with Denis Wirth-Miller, Chopping was already quoted as saying that he considered himself more a writer than a painter.

He was by then well established as an author and illustrator of natural history and children's books. Butterflies in Britain (1943) was followed by A Book of Birds, The Old Woman and the Pedlar, The Tailor and the Mouse and Wild Flowers (all 1944) and Mr Postlethwaite's Reindeer (1945), stories broadcast by the BBC.

When Chopping's first novel, The Fly, was completed, his friend Angus Wilson steered it towards David Farrer at Secker & Warburg for consideration who, commenting that he found it "a perfectly disgusting concoction", passed it on to his young colleague Giles Gordon as a first editing job. In his 1993 memoir Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement?, Gordon tells how he was "determined to like the novel", believing that "more, and no doubt better, books would follow. The Fly was indeed disgusting."

Chopping was invited to the newly married Gordon's tiny London flat, arriving with a crate of champagne for what turned out to be a bizarre weekend's editing. Gordon, who found Chopping "a most fastidious person", was convinced that The Fly, which appeared in 1965, "was sufficiently sordid to appeal to voyeurs, and if Chopping were to adorn it with one of his famous dust-jackets it could be a succès de scandale; and so it proved." Chopping's more mundane second novel, The Ring (1967), "sank with very little trace, even in the second-hand bookshops".

Chopping exhibited widely. He had showed a couple of works in a mixed exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1939, and others followed. In 1956, he shared a show of paintings and drawings at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery with Robin Ironside, the painter and theatre designer, and the Australian artist Kenneth Rowell. Chopping was also in "20th Century British Painting" at the influential New Art Centre in 1977.

He also received painting commissions. At the time of the Minories show, he had recently finished a still life as a 50th birthday present for Prince Ludwig of Hesse from his family and was completing a portrait of Lord Astor with a view of Cliveden. In addition, there were solo exhibitions. His distinctive trompe-l'oeil and flower watercolours were at the Hanover Gallery in 1953; later shows included the Aldeburgh Festival Gallery in 1979, which surveyed his paintings and graphic work from 1940 onwards.

A 1956 three-man exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, with Francis Bacon as the main attraction and separate rooms given over to pictures by a French aristocrat and Chopping, led to the Bond dust-jacket commissions. Chopping's flower paintings and trompe-l'oeil works were upstairs, as he remembered, "in a little gallery at the back, that was like a kind of long lavatory".

Bacon took Ann, Ian Fleming's wife, in to see his own work, Chopping recalled. "Then he took her upstairs to see mine, which was very good of him, and Ann went back to Ian and said, 'Well, you ought to get this chap to do your next book jacket.'" They met at one of the Flemings' artistic salons, where Fleming granted Chopping the commission for From Russia with Love.

Although the first edition jacket announced that it had been designed by the author, Chopping later said:

He in no way designed it. He did tell me the things he wanted on it. It had to be a rose with a drop of dew on it. There had to be a sawn-off Smith & Wesson. We never discussed the type of revolver we would use. It had to be that one.

Chopping and the artist Denis Wirth-Miller lived together for some 70 years from the time that Wirth-Miller was 21, Chopping 20. Wirth-Miller helped foster Chopping's artistic talent. They bought a house in 1944 in Wivenhoe, Essex, but as it was a port and ship-building centre and it was a wartime restricted area they could not move in until 1945. Eventually, they were the first in Colchester to register a civil partnership, in December 2005.

Chopping and Wirth-Miller were founder-members of a strong artistic colony in Wivenhoe. It received a boost in 1970 when the journalist George Gale invited the politician Edward Heath to open the new Wivenhoe Arts Club, with its own exhibition hall. It attracted not only visual artists but writers such as Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis and Peregrine Worsthorne.

For many years Francis Bacon had a home and studio in Wivenhoe, and Chopping was the subject of his Two Studies for Portrait of Richard Chopping, 1978. "Denis Wirth-Miller was a deep bosom-buddy of Francis from the 1940s," says Chopping's executor and friend Daniel Chapman. "When Richard and Denis had holidays, they were often extended ones in France, Francis with them. They were with Francis in Paris when his partner killed himself in an hotel." The suicide of George Dyer took place two days before Bacon's 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais.

Bacon eventually gave up his home in Wivenhoe, but he, Chopping and Wirth-Miller remained close and, even after Bacon's death in 1992, Chopping and Wirth-Miller remained closely concerned with Bacon's affairs.

Chopping's final years were blighted by sight problems, when first one, then the other, retina detached. He could just read, but could not see a picture and, although unable to paint, determinedly kept on with his writing as best he could.

David Buckman

Richard Wasey Chopping, artist, teacher and writer: born Colchester, Essex 14 April 1917; registered civil partnership 2005 with Denis Wirth-Miller; died Colchester 17 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future