The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith 

Introduced by Hannah Firmin 

I was delighted to receive the commission to design the cover for The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The book is set in Botswana, a country with a strong tradition of using lino print for textiles, books and pictures, a technique that I use in my work.

I am a graduate of the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Since leaving college I have worked as a freelance illustrator and printmaker doing work for a wide range of clients including many magazines, newspapers, publishers and advertising /design groups. I also work on commissions for private individuals and exhibit and sell my original prints and artworks. I always use the relief print as my method of working using either, lino, vinyl or wood as the engraving/cutting material but combining the print with paint and collage.

In 2004, I won ‘Best Book Cover of the Year’ for The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. For over a decade I had a working relationship with author Alexander McCall Smith, designing the covers for the rest of the series.

On receiving the original commission, I first read the manuscript and then began sketching with pencils and felt pens until I had a cover idea to the publisher. Once the concept was approved by the art director I made a tracing of the design, transposing it onto two blocks: lino and wood, one containing all the details of the image, the other the flat colour. I then print them in different colour inks onto paper and then cut out the shapes with a scalpel. The next stage is to fit them together like a jigsaw, creating a collage of the prints and tissue paper, and then adding more colour by painting over using watercolours.

It can be frustrating working with art directors who don’t understand the process involved in printmaking and my collage and painting work. They often ask if a colour can be tweaked, but it’s not like photoshop, there are several layers created using different techniques an these work together to achieve the finished work.

The No 1


A detail from Hannah’s award-winning cover for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.



Hannah Firmin showing a lino cut and wood cut beside her Colombian Press at her studio in the Black Mountains.

stack-of-paper-png-stack_of_books-2555px (1)

The Columbian Press

Columbian Press EngravingThe Columbian is by far the most lavishly decorated of all iron handpresses, although it must be noted that many of the embellishments function perfectly well as the working parts of the Press. The English writer T. C. Hansard once commented (shortly after the first Columbian Presses appeared in London) that: “If the merits of a machine were to be appreciated wholly by its ornamental appearance, certainly no other press could enter into competition with the Columbian”.

Invented in 1813 by the American George Clymer, the Columbian Press was one of the first iron printing presses and had a notable advantage over other iron handpresses, of that period. Clymer’s innovative and powerful combination of levers greatly increased the pressure that could be applied to the printing forme, without causing undue physical strain to the pressman.

Columbian Dolphin

The following description of the ornamentations on the Columbian Press is written by V. C. N. Blight CBE and taken from his publication entitled ‘The Columbian Press’, first published in 1962.

“At the time Clymer was perfecting his invention the United States was an infant nation and the very name Columbian was possibly a patriotic gesture. Even more so was the American eagle which perches defiantly with outstretched wings and open beak on the main counterbalance lever. The eagle is no mere ornament. It is the counterbalance weight, adjustable by sliding along the main counterbalance lever. For practical purposes a lump of lead would have sufficed, but to George Clymer’s way of thinking the job could be done properly only by the American eagle.

Columbian Eagle

In its talons the eagle clutches a flight of Jove’s thunderbolts, representing war, and the olive branch of peace and the cornucopia or Horn of Plenty, signifying prosperity.

Columbian Moon and Thunderbolt

A similar alliance between utility and ornamentation pervades the whole Press. The main counterbalance lever becomes at one end an arrow which rests in the horns of the crescent moon; at the other end it is coiled into the form of a dolphin whose open jaws conveniently hold the hook of the bridle connecting it with the upper end of the great lever. Another heraldic dolphin (or similar sea creature) is extended along the upper front of the great lever.

Columbian Serpent

The two pillars of the staple are embellished with the caduceus, the winged staff and intertwined serpents of Hermes. The right-hand pillar also bears near the top a conventional ear of wheat.

Columbian Hermes

Around the nameplate on the face of the great lever on the original Columbian Clymer twined a rattlesnake, the emblem of the original thirteen colonies. After his migration to England he replaced this with a more elaborate but purely decorative design.

Columbian Press FootIn contrast with the Stanhope Press, the staple of which was merely bolted to a solid base, the Columbian stands on four iron legs terminating in moulded feet which can be accepted as the paws of a lion or the talons of an eagle, according to the taste of the observer.

In the United Kingdom most of the embellishments were retained – the New South Wales Government Printing Office Columbian, built in London in 1849, has them all except the rattlesnake – but some manufacturers substituted a globe or a lion standing on a laurel wreath for the eagle. On the Continent, the makers took more liberties with the design. Some German shops turned the eagle into a Prussian eagle. French variations included the lion and laurel wreath or globe as a counterbalance weight; a great lever embellished with a figure representing La Belle France and pillars with an obelisk motif instead of the caduceus. Others dispensed almost entirely with decoration, probably with the intention of modernising the appearance of the machine for which they were unable to devise any mechanical improvements.”

Columbian Plate

Thanks to Justin Knopp of Typoretum in Coggeshall, Essex for this background to the on the Columbian Press from his blog.

stack-of-paper-png-stack_of_books-2555px (1)


The decision by Alexander McCall Smith’s publishers to change the cover designs for his books and no longer use Hannah Firmin, there was a backlash from readers, prompting Little, Brown & Abacus to issue this statement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s