In 1996, a 23-year-old aspiring illustrator called Thomas Taylor got on a train to London, walked into the offices of Bloomsbury Publishers, and dropped off some sketches of dragons. Fresh out of art school, he had never had a paid job before – but he figured it was worth a shot.
A week later, I got a phone call. “It was Barry Cunningham – he said he’d seen my samples, and he had a book by an unknown author, and would I fancy doing the cover?” recalls Taylor now.
That book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, released 25 years ago this week. And the cover – a steam train with billowing purple smoke, and a boy with round glasses and a lightning bolt scar – would become one of the most recognizable in the world.
Back then, though, Taylor didn’t know any of that. “I was just mostly concerned with not missing the deadline,” the 48-year-old tells me, handing over a plate of biscuits.
We’re in his studio, in the back garden of his home in Bexhill-on-Sea. These days, it’s a space dedicated more to writing than drawing. I had expected mementos, maybe a framed cover, but the only clue to Taylor’s connection to Harry Potter is a book nestled inconspicuously on the top left of his floor-to-ceiling bookshelf.
It’s partly out of modesty – Taylor is the self-deprecating sort – and partly, as I’ll later discover, because his relationship with his first ever job is a little complicated.
To help their young new recruit with his cover, Bloomsbury sent Taylor a printout of the manuscript to read, complete with scribbled editors’ notes and underlines.
He read it on the train, becoming one of the first people in the world to come across words such as “Quidditch”, “Hogwarts” and “Gryffindor”, and to meet the boy whose image he would be bringing to life.
When he finished reading, the manuscript went onto “a pile of scrap paper that I used to draw on”, he recalls. “And then the remains of it went in the recycling bin. I didn’t think it was worth keeping.”
There was no written brief, and no correspondence with the book’s author, JK Rowling – just a conversation with Cunningham, who had taken a chance on Harry Potter after 12 other publishers turned it down.
His instructions were simple: he wanted the cover to show Harry boarding the Hogwarts Express.
“And then off I went,” says Taylor. It sounded simple, but it wasn’t. “In the early sketches, you couldn’t see Harry properly because he’s walking towards the train, but the train had to be seen,” he explains, scratching the ears of his rescue dog Alpha.
“So I had to keep redrawing him.” He figured it out in the end: using concentrated watercolors and a pipette, he painted Harry standing in front of the train, looking to his right. He picks up a copy of the book to show me, and looks down at it. “I wouldn’t draw that now.”
Why not? “I mean, I probably wouldn’t paint the interior of a London railway station in order to illustrate, you know, Harry Potter,” he says with a laugh.
“And also the way he’s dressed.” His Harry looks resolutely muggle-like in a scruffy white shirt, a blue-ish coat and striped scarf.
“He’d been described as wearing hand-me-down clothes, and he’s about to go off to become transformed into a wizard, but now I would probably use artistic license to dress him more fabulously. I would fill the page with magic. A good cover should tell you what it will feel like to read a book. I’m not sure that’s quite how the Harry Potter story feels.”
It’s how it feels to me. that old-fashioned steam train. Those yellow stars in the smoke. The look of wonder on Harry’s face of him. Maybe it’s because this is the first Harry Potter I ever saw, but to me the cover is full of magic.
“There is a lot of nostalgia for that image,” Taylor concedes.
“People are able to remember being a child in bed at night reading the book. And that’s really quite magical in itself. So I am very proud of that.”
He’s more fond of the wizard on the back – the original one, that is. When the book first gained popularity, children in playgrounds across the country argued over who that strange man was on the back of their book – the one with the pin-striped trousers, handlebar mustache, a pipe and a twinkle in his eye. Was it Nicolas Flamel? Professor Quirrell? A character we’d not yet met? “Well, it was my dad,” says Taylor. “Barry said, ‘Can you just paint a wizard to decorate the back cover?’ And my dad dressed quite flamboyantly at the time – he had funny hats and embroidered waistcoats. It was an in-joke.”
The in-joke got out of hand. “I think it became a bit of a problem for Bloomsbury,” he says. The publishers were inundated with letters demanding to know who the man was, and more importantly, what that bulge was in his right pocket.
Taylor’s dad, who lived in Denmark at the time, even had reporters turn up on his doorstep to ask whether he had inspired the world of Harry Potter. Eventually, he was asked to change the drawing. Newer editions were printed with Dumbledore on the back instead, his long silver beard tucked into his belt. Taylor did leave a little Easter egg on that illustration, though. “He has runic letters in his cloak – the runes from Tolkien’s Hobbit – that says his name. No one’s ever picked me up on it.”
Back to the book’s release. Proud of his employee, the manager at the Cambridge bookshop where Taylor was working at the time ordered 10 hardback first editions of Harry Potter. Taylor didn’t buy one – they were supposed to be sending him a copy. In fact, “nobody was buying them”, he says. “If you think about their value now, me, the staff, and the people in the shop were all walking past something very valuable without knowing it.” I laugh. “If I had any inkling, I would have bought the lot.” A first edition recently sold for $471,000 (£384,000).
If you’re wondering why Taylor had to keep working in a bookshop after designing the cover of a multi-million-selling book, it’s because the job “was pretty poorly paid initially”. The contract was later re-drawn so he got a bit more money, “but it doesn’t really generate income”, he says. He doesn’t get royalties? “No, the contract licenses it for a one-off fee… But I can’t complain,” he adds brightly. “You don’t normally make money out of a book cover.”
Cunningham had warned Rowling, too, that she would “never make any money from the book”, but its popularity soon exploded. When “the mania”, as Taylor puts it, took off, he was still working at the bookshop. And whenever a customer bought a copy of Harry Potter, his colleagues would point him out and tell them that he did the cover. Most of the time they didn’t believe it. “You could see them thinking, ‘Why is the person associated with this huge thing working behind the till?’” he says.
“The whole experience was pretty awkward for me. So I did sort of ignore it for quite a lot of years. Oh hello pussycat!” A shaggy black cat with one leg shaved has just sauntered in. He’s called Lupine, says Taylor. Oh, after the werewolf in Harry Potter? “Nope. I didn’t think of that. It’s after the French TV show.”
As you may have gathered, Taylor isn’t exactly a “fan” of Harry Potter. I thought the books were excellent, of course, but the whole experience was somewhat scarring.
“I was a little bit hounded by the press for a time,” he says. “And also, it opened doors but not necessarily the right doors. Sometimes you could tell somebody was just trying to associate the words ‘Harry Potter’ with their project, rather than offering me a project I was actually suited for. I was trying to build a career in the creative sector, where I didn’t want to be chased around by the very first thing I’d done. Usually the first things you do are forgotten. So there was a time when I really didn’t talk about Harry Potter.”
Things have changed now. “I’ve got my own things going on,” he says. His series of children’s books by him, malamander, which funnily enough he didn’t do the cover art for, has been so successful that he’s often invited to schools to give readings. Harry Potter doesn’t even come up. When it does, “it feels like it’s an interesting part of my past. It’s a nice line on my CV. Having had an awkward earlier phase with Harry Potter, I’m pleased to have been able to bring it into a more positive context where I can just enjoy it.”
Years after he’d done the cover, Taylor met JK Rowling for the first time, when she came to sign books in his bookshop. She knew who he was, and they chatted, but not about Harry Potter – “just about gardening”. Since then, Rowling has become a divisive figure, her views on trans people seemingly at odds with her stories, and their message of tolerance and kindness. Taylor nods when I mention this.
“The Harry Potter fan space has always been a really rich, creative and inclusive space,” he says. “And I’ve always felt that it’s owned by the fans really. I hope as many fans as possible can continue to shape it as they need it to be, and to continue to find what they need from it. I hope they can.”
As our conversation draws to a close, and Alpha continues his mission to evict me from his chair, I’ve got one more favor to ask of Taylor: will he sign my book? He takes it, opens to the first page and starts to scribble. As he does, I ask what he wants his legacy from him to be.
“I would love to pass on the love of books to another generation,” he says. “It took me a long time to discover the joy of reading, and to realize it’s not a chore… I think JK Rowling did that with the Harry Potter books.”
From his pen, a boy with scruffy hair, a cheeky smirk and a lightning bolt scar is emerging. “I don’t want to end my days only being known as someone who did the cover art for Harry Potter.”
That would be a hell of a lot more than most people are known for. I laugh. “Well, I suppose so.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 25th Anniversary Edition is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, £16.99
Win a signed, limited edition print of Thomas Taylor’s Harry Potter cover. Design your cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and send it to Harry Potter Competition, News, Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London, W8 5TT by 22 July. The winner will be chosen by a panel of Yo judges