John Overton (1920–1991), né Hans Oberndorfer, was born in Germany and came to England with his father in 1927. He grew up at Sevenoaks, Kent. He was briefly interned at the beginning of the War and on his release he joined the publisher Penguin Books at Harmondsworth, Middlesex. His duties were at first clerical, but he soon took over design matters and became production manager in 1943. He changed his name to John Overton in about 1947. In 1956 he left Penguin and came to Australia to establish Thomas Nelson’s Australian office. After seven years, he joined UNESCO as a consultant in low-cost book production for developing countries. He retired in 1980. In his later years he lived in the United States in Washington, D.C.
Penguin Books had been founded in 1935 by Allen Lane and his brothers who ‘believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price’. The sixpenny paperbacks, by authors such as Compton Mackenzie, Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, Vita Sackville-West and Liam O’Flaherty, were an instant success. Overton seems to have started acquiring Penguin books on a systematic basis in the early 1940s. His aim was to have a copy of every book in the numerous series published by Penguin Books, such as Penguins, Pelicans, Penguin Specials and Penguin Classics. He was not always able to acquire first editions of the early titles and had to be content with later impressions. For instance, his copy of Penguin No. 1, André Maurois’ Ariel (1935), is the ninth impression, published in 1940. Overton assembled a comprehensive collection of Penguins up to No. 2000, which was published in 1964, and of titles in the other Penguin series published in the 1935–64 period. There were some gaps: of the 2000 main-line Penguins, 68 are missing from the collection.
Overton donated his collection to the Library in 1991, shortly before his death. His reasons for placing it in an Australian library were that there were already Penguin collections in British libraries, he had happy memories of his time in Australia and his daughter had settled in Sydney. Although the Library held other editions of many of the books, it accepted the collection as a record of an innovative publisher who introduced well-designed paperbacks of high quality to a mass audience in Britain and the English-speaking world.
The Overton Collection consists of slightly over 4000 volumes, of which about half are main-line Penguins. The principal series represented in the collection are:
- Penguins, 1935–64
- Pelicans, 1937–64
- Penguin Specials, 1937–64
- Peregrine Books, 1962–64
- Penguin Classics, 1946–64
- Penguin New Writing, 1940–50
- Penguin New Biology, 1945–60
- Science News, 1946–60
- Penguin Shakespeare, 1937–59
- Penguin Parade, 1937–45
- Russian Review, 1945–48
- Penguin Poets, 1941–63
- Forces Book Club, 1942–43
- Buildings of England, 1951–61
- Penguin Modern Painters, 1943–55
- King Penguins, 1939–59
- Penguin Scores, 1962–64
- Penguin Plays, 1946–60
- Pelican History of Art, 1953–1962
Of special interest is the Forces Book Club, which supplied sets of 10 books each month to military units during World War II. Each set contained a mixture of fiction, crime, biography, world affairs, science and other subjects. The Overton Collection contains 12 sets, 10 of which are complete.
A small collection of manuscripts, papers and printed ephemera accompanied the collection. They include letters and internal memoranda, including memos from Sir Allen Lane (1949–56), articles and papers on book production and typography, notes and calculations by Overton, photographs, designs by Overton including the cover of the first volume of the Penguins Classics, manuscript and typescript drafts of Penguins Progress (1946), letters and proofs of Montague Summers’ Witchcraft and Black Magic (1943), and printers proofs of S.T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with drawings by Duncan Grant.
The books in the Overton Collection have been kept together as a collection in the Rare Books Collection. They are catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefixes RB OVE and RB OVE A.
The manuscripts and papers are housed in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 9260. They occupy two boxes. Descriptive notes are filed with the papers.
Layland, Penelope, The Overton Collection, National Library of Australia News, vol. 2 (8), May 1992, pp. 4–6.