Pelican Books is the non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books. From 1938 to 1940, a few books within the series Penguin Specials (and thus given numbers starting with “S”) were given blue covers and labelled as Pelican Specials. These paperbacks were claimed by the publishers to be ‘books of topical importance published within as short a time as possible from the receipt of the manuscript. Some are reprints of famous books brought up-to-date, but usually they are entirely new books published for the first time. S16, which I finished reading this morning, is

Here is the frontispiece;

sample pages with drawings and texts;

and, in particular, the plates of the underwater pencil sketches. These were made on xylonite, a waterproof early plastic which would, when suitably prepared, take pencil.

The intense expression in this portrait of Robert Gibbings reveals the penetrating eye that provides his vision for detail; his evident power belies the delicacy of his hand. The strength required to manage his drawing in a fairly primitive helmet weighed down by lead piping to enable him to remain underwater is evident in the striking image.

Gibbings “was born in Cork in 1889 and educated in the snipe bogs and trout streams of Munster.” He attended the National University of Ireland, and in London the Slade School and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. During the first World War he served in Gallipoli and Salonica; in 1924 he took over the Golden Cockerel Press and ran it for nine years, producing books which will long remain some of the finest examples of English printing. It was largely through his efforts that the Society of Wood-engravers came into being. (From the jacket blurb).

This delightful little volume bears the author’s descriptive, poetic, prose; useful information about fish and coral reefs as they were 80 years ago. His eye for colour and form is evident throughout, and he brings an elegance of movement both to the drawings and to the wood engravings.

Originally published at 6d or 2.5p in today’s money, the book is so well made that it remains intact.

This evening Jackie will produce a roast chicken dinner. Before then Giles will collect me and drive me to the bird hide at Milford on Sea where I hope to photograph waterfowl. I will report on that tomorrow.


  1. Super interesting, Derrick. A friend of mine is a marine biologist/illustrator and draws underwater quite often on some kind of tablet. She’d get a huge kick out of this book. Thanks for sharing. Be well and regards to Jackie.

  2. Wonderful illustrations and fascinating how he drew them underwater! I hope your photographic expedition went well. I’m sure you came home to a most excellent dinner. 🙂

  3. This is a wonderfully informative post Derrick – thank you! I didn’t know the reason for the different coloured book covers. This particular book is a dream isn’t it!

  4. Incredible drawings and fascinating technique! Especially interesting to me, since I have gone diving in the John Pennekamp coral reef here, on Key Largo, and some of the marine life pictured is recognizable.

  5. Robert Gibbings indeed has a discerning artist’s eye and a creativity that boggles my mind! I love his drawings. Reading that they were produced under water further amazed me! What a great find, Derrick. Thank you!

  6. This is really interesting, Derrick. When I was in college, I wanted to study oceanography, but it wasn’t offered as a major. I’ve always been fascinated by sea life. Thanks for sharing!

  7. My husband has kept salt water fish tanks many years. I have written several posts including photographs of his tanks. The critters are quite interesting and have personalities. Some friendly, others aggressive. Although I used to resent all the time he spent on the tanks, now that he’s retired it tis great that he has a hobby to occupy his time.

  8. I’m back from my trip, Derrick. It is good to see you again! I love the illustrations, and history of the book. As always, thank you for expanding my world. Give my best to Jackie.

  9. OOH! I love ocean/sea life! And these drawings are stunning! 🙂 They make me feel like you took us snorkeling, Derrick! 🙂 Thank you! 🙂
    I can’t wait to see your waterfowl photos! I bet they won’t be foul! 😉 😛
    HUGS and HEY to you and Jackie!!! 🙂

  10. I did not know about the S books. How interesting! And my, talk about excellent illustrations! Thanks for sharing about this book that you read in 1 morning? What a fast reader!

  11. Astounding images – and very true to life also. Quite a remarkable man, it would seem. 🙂

    Take care Sir! 🙂

  12. What a cornucopia of undersea life, beautifully rendered. 🙂 … thanks, as always for sharing these these fabulous images. I doubt that I would ever see them otherwise. 🙂

  13. Thanks for sharing this, Derrick. I agree, the author’s intense expression indicates a sharp mind for detail. I’m going to see if I can find this or another Robert Gibbings to look at.

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