In 1996, a 23-year-old aspiring illustrator named Thomas Taylor boarded a train to London, walked into the offices of Bloomsbury publishers, and left behind some sketches of dragons. He had just come out of art school and had never had a paid job before, but he thought it was worth a try.
A week later he got a call. “It was Barry Cunningham – he said he’d seen my samples, and he had a book by an unknown author, and would I do the cover?” Taylor now remembers.
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.
But then Taylor didn’t know about that. “I was just mainly concerned with not missing the deadline,” says the 48-year-old, handing over a plate of cookies.
We’re in his studio, in the backyard of his house in Bexhill-on-Sea. Today it is a space devoted more to writing than drawing. I expected mementos, perhaps a framed cover, but the only clue to Taylor’s connection to Harry Potter is a book tucked inconspicuously in the top left corner of his floor-to-ceiling bookshelf.
It’s partly out of modesty – Taylor is the kind of self-mockery – and partly, as I’ll find out later, because his relationship with his very first job is a bit complicated.
To help their young new recruit with his cover, Bloomsbury sent Taylor a printout of the manuscript for reading, complete with notes and underlinings from the editor.
He read it on the train and became one of the first people in the world to encounter words like “Quidditch”, “Hogwarts” and “Gryffindor”, and met the boy whose image he would bring to life.
When he finished reading, the manuscript went on “a pile of scrap paper I drew on,” he recalls. “And then the leftovers went in the trash. I didn’t think it was worth keeping.”
There was no written order and no correspondence with the book’s author, JK Rowling – just a conversation with Cunningham, who had taken the risk of Harry Potter after 12 other publishers rejected it.
His instructions were simple: he wanted Harry to be seen on the cover aboard the Hogwarts Express.
“And then I went,” Taylor says. It sounded simple, but it wasn’t. “You couldn’t see Harry very well in the early sketches because he was 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 draw it over and over again.” Finally he found out: Using concentrated watercolors and a pipette, he painted Harry standing in front of the train, looking to the right. He takes a copy of the book to show me and looks at it. “I wouldn’t sign that now.”
Why not? “I mean, I probably wouldn’t paint the interior of a London train station to illustrate Harry Potter,” he says with a laugh.
“And also the way he’s dressed.” His Harry looks resolutely muggle-like in a dingy white shirt, bluish coat and striped scarf.
“He was described as wearing worn-out clothes, and he’s about to turn into a wizard, but now I’d probably use artistic freedom to dress him up more fabulously. I would fill the page with magic. A good cover should tell you what it feels like to read a book. I’m not sure if the Harry Potter story feels that way.”
That’s how it feels to me. That old-fashioned steam train. Those yellow stars in the smoke. The surprised look on Harry’s face. Maybe it’s because this is the first Harry Potter I’ve ever seen, but for me the cover is full of magic.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for that image,” admits Taylor.
“People can remember reading the book in bed at night as a child. And that in itself is very magical. I am very proud of that.”
He likes the wizard on the back more – the original at least. When the book first gained popularity, kids in playgrounds across the country were arguing over who that strange man on the back of their book was — the one with the pinstripe pants, handlebar mustache, a pipe, and a twinkle in his eye. Was it Nicholas Flamel? Professor Quirrell? A character we hadn’t met yet? “Well, it was my dad,” Taylor says. ‘Barry said, ‘Can you paint a wizard to decorate the back cover?’ And my father at the time dressed rather flamboyantly – he had funny hats and embroidered cardigans. It was a joke.”
The joke got out of hand. “I think it became a bit of a problem for Bloomsbury,” he says. Publishers were inundated with letters demanding to know who the man was, and more importantly, what that bulge in his right pocket was.
Taylor’s father, who lived in Denmark at the time, even had reporters knock on the door to ask if he had inspired the world of Harry Potter. Finally 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 small Easter egg on that illustration. “He has runic letters in his cloak – Tolkien’s runes hobbit – who say his name. No one ever pointed it out to me.”
Back to the release of the book. Proud of his employee, the manager of the Cambridge bookshop where Taylor worked at the time, ordered 10 first hardback editions of Harry Potter. Taylor didn’t buy one – they were going to send him a copy. In fact, “nobody bought them,” he says. “Now when you think about their value, I, the staff and the people in the store all walked past something very valuable without even knowing it.” He smiles. “If I had any idea, 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 bookstore after designing the cover of a multimillion-selling book, it’s because the job was “pretty poorly paid in the beginning.” The contract was later resigned so that he could get a little more money, “but it doesn’t really bring in any income,” he says. He doesn’t get any royalties? “No, the contract licenses it for a one-time fee… But I can’t complain,” he adds cheerfully. “Normally you don’t make money with a book cover.”
Cunningham had also warned Rowling that she would “never make money from the book,” but its popularity soon exploded. When ‘mania’, as Taylor put it, took off, he was still working in the bookstore. And when a customer bought a copy of Harry Potter, his colleagues would point it out and tell them he was doing the cover. Most of the time they didn’t believe it. “You could see them thinking, ‘Why does the person associated with this huge thing work behind the cash register?'” he says.
“The whole experience was quite uncomfortable for me. So I ignored it for quite a few years. Oh, hello kitty!” A shaggy black cat with a shaved paw has just sauntered in. His name is Lupin, Taylor says. Oh, after the werewolf in Harry Potter? “No. I didn’t think of that. It’s after the French TV show.”
As you may have understood, Taylor isn’t exactly a “fan” of Harry Potter. He thought the books were excellent, of course, but the whole experience was somewhat painful.
“I got a little rushed by the press for a while,” he says. “And also, it opened doors, but not necessarily the right doors. Sometimes you could see someone just trying to associate the words “Harry Potter” with their project, instead of offering me a project I was really suited for. I was trying to build a career in the creative sector, where I didn’t want to be haunted by the very first thing I did. Usually the first things you do are forgotten. So there was a time when I really didn’t talk about Harry Potter.”
Things have now changed. “I have my own things going on,” he says. His series of children’s books, Malamander, which he oddly didn’t do the cover art for, has been so successful that he is often invited to give lectures in schools. Harry Potter isn’t even mentioned. If so, “it feels like it’s an interesting part of my past. It’s a nice line on my resume. After an awkward earlier phase with Harry Potter, I’m glad I’ve been able to put it in a more positive context where I can just enjoy it.”
Years after he made the cover, Taylor first met JK Rowling when she came to sign books at his bookstore. She knew who he was, and they talked, but not about Harry Potter – “just about gardening”. Since then, Rowling has become divisive, her views on transgender people seem to be at odds with her stories and their message of tolerance and kindness. Taylor nods when I say this.
“The Harry Potter fan space has always been a very rich, creative and inclusive space,” he says. “And I’ve always felt like it really belongs to the fans. I hope that as many fans as possible can continue to shape it the way they need it, and that they can continue to find what they need. I hope they can.”
As our conversation draws to a close and Alpha continues his mission to kick me out of his seat, I have one more favor to ask Taylor: Will he sign my book? He takes it, opens the first page and starts scribbling. As he does that, I ask what he wants his legacy to be.
“I would like 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 that it’s not a chore…I think JK Rowling did that with the Harry Potter books.”
From his pen emerges a boy with shabby hair, a cheeky grin and a lightning bolt scar. “I don’t want to end my days with just being known as someone who made the cover for Harry Potter.”
That would be much more than most people are known for. He smiles. “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, inews, Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London, W8 5TT by July 22. The winner will be chosen by a panel of i judges