"I bought this guy called Harland Miller, who puts really offensive slogans on Penguin books. I've got pretty much the most offensive word you can have huge in my house." - Ed Sheeran
What Sheeran's talking about are the large-scale Pop Art-esque canvases that Harland Miller is praised for around the world. The works mimic the iconic orange and white covers of old Penguin paperbacks, with one crucial difference - in huge lettering, are Miller's witty and ironic titles. Here are three things you need to know about Harland Miller
1. Miller's Penguin book covers and ironic titles catch the art world's eye
These covers are closer to still life studies, rather than two-dimensional posters. Experimenting with different paper sizes and angles, he occasionally shows their spines, and the shadows they cast. It is a celebration of books as treasured objects. His drawings - in particular his studies for his large-scale oil paintings with their notes scribbled down the margins - are some of his most intimate works to date.
The ensuing images are humorous, sardonic and nostalgic at the same time, while the painting style hints at the dog-eared, scuffed covers of the Penguin classics themselves.
International Lonely Guy, 2008
Starting with Jay Jopling in 1996, when Miller exhibited in a group show at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, his works have garnered many a famous fan. Amongst which are AC/DC's guitarist Angus Young, David Bailey, and Elton John - whose work amusingly, if a little painfully, bears the title 'International Lonely Guy.'
George Michael, with his Harland Miller piece 'Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore' commanded £237,500 in the posthumous auction of his art collection last year.
2. Miller's works are far more than just a simple gag
While illiciting a smile or a laugh from many, his work is about far more than lewd words looking for a childish reaction - it's about nostalgia. Not the type that Brexiteers talk of - jolly village fetes, Hovis adverts and steel blossoming heavy industries. Such fanciful notions had no place in Miller's youth:
"I grew up in Yorkshire in the Seventies - during the miners' strike and the reign of the Yorkshire Ripper - and looking back, these times seemed quite dark, quite literally when you had the power cuts too."
His artworks do however carry something of the same charm that Leavers in their rose-tinted glasses wistfully dream of. As Miller says, "I remember my parents' Penguin books. For me, they are about nostalgia for a by-gone era - that musty smell, those coffee-mug rings, the often heart-breaking inscriptions on the inside cover." And much like the inscriptions, the titles he chooses for his 'covers' are often poignant too. What they're not is self-indulgent or depressing; instead they're funny and satirical - as with his piece, 'You Can Rely On Me: I'll Always Let You Down.' Typically dark, it speaks to a mordant, very English streak of humour - though one that is globally recognised.
All this contributes to a body of work that invariably strikes a chord with the viewer. Covers like these are universally recognisable, while the words resonate with the human condition and yet cause you to smirk - all human life is there. No wonder Miller discovered that, "people take the titles personally." So much so, he says, that "they write to me, telling me what they mean to them."
3. His work goes beyond the Penguin Book covers
Miller's work isn't restricted to Penguins; he makes use of Pelicans too - Pelicans being the same publisher's non-fiction imprint. Miller calls them his 'Bad Weather' paintings and uses these to comment upon the North's culture, with titles such as, 'WHITBY The Self Catering Years,' 'GRIMSBY The World Is Your Whelk,' and 'YORK So Good They Named It Once'. The wit is downbeat and droll: as Miller has said, humour, "replaces or does instead of stoicism in the North of England." Equally, his 2016 exhibition, 'Tonight We Make History (P.S. I Can't Be There)', took inspiration from the covers of seventies psychology books, with his imagined titles loyal to his consistently dour tone: 'Back To The Worry Beads', for example, and 'Happiness, The Case Against It.' In their turn, his 'Letter Paintings' give a nod to the typography of medieval manuscripts, while embracing such everyday slang and endearments as 'Ace' and 'Luv.'
So whilst the Pop Art movement influenced Miller's work, it's clear that it's memory, along with his Northern roots, that inspires Miller's content. To be exhibiting at York Art Gallery this year, as Miller is until May, inevitably feeds into his natural leaning toward nostalgia. As the artist says of returning to his hometown, "there is both a historical and emotional context which simply isn't present and cannot be manufactured for any other exhibition." Yet those very contexts are ever-present in his works, giving him a worldwide reach that weirdly, yet comfortingly, makes people feel very much at home.