Illustrating Spymaster by Helen Fry: A Q&A with Rui Ricardo

Thomas Kendrick (1881–1972) was central to the British Secret Service from its beginnings through to the Second World War. Under the guise of “British Passport Officer,” he ran spy networks across Europe, facilitated the escape of Austrian Jews, and later went on to set up the “M Room,” a listening operation which elicited information of the same significance and scope as Bletchley Park. Yet the work of Kendrick, and its full significance, remains largely unknown. Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6 by Helen Fry is the story of the remarkable man who stood at the center of British intelligence operations, the ultimate spymaster of World War Two.

The dramatic cover art was commissioned from Porto born and based illustrator Rui Ricardo. We asked Rui to tell us about his work, his creative process and what his inspirations were in designing the jacket for Spymaster.

1. What were your inspirations in creating the cover illustration for Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6?

I’m a big fan of poster art from the first half of the XXth century, it’s been a major influence in most of my work.

I felt the film noir aesthetics would work really well for this cover with high contrast and a mystery ambience which relates to the subject of the book.

It also relates to the period so we’re visually taken back to the 1940’s, when the story takes place.

2. The image has so many details! I noticed particularly the spider-like webbing on the map – how did you decide to include that detail?

It came to me while reading the brief that mentioned that Kendrick was handling a web of spies. I thought it would be an interesting detail, having literally a spider web instead of the latitude and longitude lines on the map.

3. You also created the cover art for Helen Fry’s previous book MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two which has a cohesive look to Spymaster. Does aesthetic cohesiveness help or restrict your creative process?

Both books are quite similar, dealing with spies in WW2 – it was something that came naturally. I was lucky to have total freedom when it comes to style so I just went for what felt right.

In cases like this aesthetic cohesiveness is actually helpful because it helps me go through the same creative path and makes it easier when I already know beforehand what the final look of the cover should be.

4. What do you enjoy most about creating book cover illustrations?

I really enjoy the initial process of coming up with the concepts and putting those on paper with pencil. It’s all very back to basics, just thinking and drawing with no computers or technology involved as it’s been done for centuries. With books like these I also like the research I have to do, I often get carried away and waste countless hours looking through old photos, reading history articles and watching documentaries.

For Spymaster, I was handed a ton of information and references to make it look historically accurate but I did the research anyway just to be absorbed in the subject and for fun.

5. What would be your dream project? Can you tell us about any projects you have worked on recently?

I’d love to do covers for a collection of books of some of my favourite authors like JG Ballard, Stanislaw Lem or Arkady and Boris Strugastsy. All of them have such amazing concepts that were never correctly explored visually, I think. It would be very rewarding creatively to paint all the mental dreamy, and sometimes nightmarish, landscapes I created in my head over the years reading their books.

New projects come and go constantly. I recently worked on a series of illustrations to be displayed as medallions in the main building of Expo 2021 in Dubai. I’m now working on an illustrated book about the history of transportation and another one about the Titanic.

Rui Ricardo is an illustrator born and living in Porto, represented by Folio in London. He studied fine arts and graphic design, after a few years working as an animator and motion designer for cinema and television, he’s been working exclusively as a freelance illustrator for over fifteen years. His work has been featured in countless publications, books and ads mostly in Europe and the US, for clients like Virgin, KLM, British Airways, Air Berlin, Penguin Books, Esquire, Emirates, Hasbro, The New York Times, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Vodafone, Samsung, Forbes, Monocle and many more.

He likes to travel, dogs, plants, books and to play the banjo.

Find out more about Rui Ricardo on his website or and check out his artwork on Instagram!

Find out more about the stunning cover of The Story of Work, or how to design beautiful books on our blog!

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