The look of love: invented in Toronto? The unexpected Canadian history of Harlequin romance covers

They're the soapy scenes synonymous with romance, and for years they were designed and published in Toronto.

They're the soapy scenes synonymous with romance, and for years they were designed and published in Toronto

Cover art by Tony Meers for Joanna Mansell's Haunted Summer, one of several paintings on display at The Beguiling. (CBC Arts)

The images have been seen by thousands, maybe even millions of people, though the titles probably won't be familiar: Night of Shame, Two-Timing Love, Making Magic. They're the original covers for a slew of Harlequin romance novels, and through Valentine's Day, Toronto comic shop The Beguiling is showing a selection by local illustrator Tony Meers.

The show's tongue-in-cheek title? Retromancer: Painted Lessons in Heteronormativity, and some 80 of Meers's oil paintings are available for sale — scenes he would have produced over the '80s and '90s, sometimes two or three at a time. (To this day, the publisher maintains a staggering output of fresh titles, releasing 66 books over their various romance series a month, and that's not including the ebooks.)

Square-jawed heroes clutch swooning women in gazebos — and maximalist living rooms and unidentified tropical locales. Meers's scenes are typical, as synonymous with romance as Harlequin itself. But for decades, that exaggerated look of love was being mass-produced in Toronto.

As seen at The Beguiling: original Harlequin cover art by Tony Meers. (Courtesy of The Beguiling)

Harlequin's history starts in Winnipeg a little more than 60 years ago. The company always had some stake in romance, though in their earliest days, they were printing all sorts of genre fiction, re-packaging American and British titles for a Canadian market. Like some blushing heroine tumbling into the bronzed embrace of her billionaire playboy, they leaned in hard by the '50s. At first, it was reprints of Mills & Boon yarns, a British brand they eventually bought in the early '70s. And as the decade progressed, Harlequin, which was now headquartered in Toronto, redefined itself as the universal catch-all for romance novel. Equipped with a new marketing strategy — one that gave their branding bigger billing than the bylines — the books were everywhere: Harlequins were shilled on daytime TV and packed into boxes of maxi pads. They spilled beyond book sellers and into the supermarkets. Ravenous readers could even subscribe for a regular fix of happily-ever-afters.

Though published in Canada, the novels themselves weren't exactly a homegrown product. According to this history, a "smattering of Canadians and Australians" were published in the '70s, but Harlequin authors of the era were "almost entirely British" (that is, white British). The cover designs, however, are another story.

Elizabeth Semmelhack became an expert on the subject in 2009. That year, Harlequin brought a special illustration exhibition to galleries in New York and Las Vegas: The Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949-2009. Curated by Semmelhack, who's now the creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, she was given access to thousands of paintings and other materials that had been stashed away by the publisher. For the show, she focused on six of the publisher's go-to illustrators: five Canadians (Norm Eastman, Jack Harman, Paul Anna Soik, Bern Smith, Will Davies) and New Yorker Max Ginsberg.

"For Brian's Sake." Cover art by Tony Meers. (Instagram/@thebeguiling)

"In my understanding, and from the work I did, the majority of artists were Canadian," says Semmelhack. Norm Eastman is one of her favourites, as is Will Davies. (Canada Post honoured the latter in 2018, reproducing one of his romance covers as a collectors' stamp.) "Davies's painting had a very dreamlike quality to it," she says. "An elegance, or a sophistication."

The concepts, however, would have been conjured by Harlequin staff. One former illustrator — American artist Frank Kalan — has published a selection of his paintings and production materials online, and if you skim through some of his correspondence with Harlequin, every assignment was outlined in detail. A standard form "cover art information" sheet would provide instructions on everything from "backdrop elements," character descriptions, the scene's "level of sensuality," even makeup and jewelry and wardrobe. (Sample request: "her firefighting gear emphasizes her femininity.")

Gary McLaughlin can't remember the exact number of covers he would have painted for Harlequin. It's been 20 years since his last assignment, and the job is a blur of cascading mahogany tresses. "I don't know whether it's a terrible thing to say, but [the covers] were all the same," he says, chuckling. "You almost became like a technician, you know? You were following your reference so incredibly — it's almost like a paint by number, if you follow me."

Still, the job would have been a major opportunity for a local illustrator. McLaughlin says a single cover could earn him $2,500. "Back then, in the '80s, it was very good money." And between 1978 and the early 2000s, McLaughlin says he must have cranked out hundreds of passionate vignettes, even casting models for reference photos (which he'd also shoot himself).

"It's all boy, girl — doing what they do in Harlequin romance," says McLaughlin, who got his first gig with the Toronto-based publisher straight out of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD U), where he took classes from Will Davies. (Meers declined an interview request, but according to The Beguiling, he studied under Davies, as well. He calls the late illustrator "an artistic mentor.")

Cover art by Gary McLaughlin for The Primrose Bride. (Courtesy of the artist)

Over 20 odd years, McLaughlin never read a manuscript before painting, but the notes sent over from Harlequin were about more than capturing some nugget of the story. A great cover's got to capture something more intangible than a set of glistening pecs. Between the passion and the setting and the impossibly shiny hair, it's got to sell an idea — and in Semmelhack's research, Harlequin covers, never mind the novels themselves, are unusually good at "taking the pulse of society at any given moment." Trends in pop culture, generally speaking, are usually pretty helpful to that end. It's why everything you've ever seen, heard or read can be spun into a clickbait-y thinkpiece. (Marvel movies, Baby Yoda, S Club 7 B-sides: what do they say about us?) But with romance, you get some extra-special focus. It's a genre about desire, after all — female desire. So what do they reveal about what women want?

Illustrations from the '50s and early '60s, she says, were "extremely prescient." Back then, a cover featuring a smouldering male love interest wasn't a given, but you'd definitely see the heroine — dropped in some some "exotic location" or working a daring career. "Right before the women's movement really took off, there was a huge trend to read books about women who had left their lives behind," she says. "You could almost feel the cultural desire to break with tradition, and these women more generally wanting more control over their lives, or more action in the workplace."

But the style most people think of — fainting glamazons and their broad-chested beaux, caught in PG-13 throes of passion? That didn't surface 'til the '70s.

Cover art by Gary McLaughlin. (Courtesy of the artist)

Semmelhack doesn't consider Harlequin a pioneer of the aesthetic. Most historians trace the era of puffy-shirted steam heat to a sexually charged 1972 HarperCollins best-seller, The Flame and the Flower. But if Harlequin didn't invent the look, they were peddling a similar fantasy at an enormous volume. By the mid '70s, they were publishing 450,000 copies of every title, and the choice to commission painted covers — when they could have run photographs — helped craft the fairy tale promise. Those oil paintings were like smearing reality with a tub of Vaseline, and they kept slathering it on for the next couple decades.

In 2020, romance remains a force in publishing, despite diminishing print sales. For much of the last decade, ebooks have chipped at the paperback's dominance, and 61 per cent of romance fans were buying digital over print by 2015 (according to stats from the Romance Writers of America). But Harlequin says they sell two books every second, and in any given month, readers can expect 66 new stories spread out over 12 "Harlequin Series" — a variety of romance subgenres ranging from O.G. brand Harlequin Presents ("exotic locations where passion knows no bounds") to Harlequin Intrigue ("Action-packed stories where crimes are solved and justice is delivered") to Love Inspired ("uplifting stories of faith, forgiveness and hope").

Tony Horvath, Harlequin's creative director, says his team leads the photo shoots for that raft of titles, usually hiring local models. The concepts are a group effort, with the work shared between art directors, a photo researcher and a designer, with specific series being overseen by different art directors. The creative operation remains based in Toronto, though Harlequin was sold by TorStar in 2014, becoming a division of HarperCollins.

"When I first started working here, the idea behind our covers was that it was — I hate to say fantasy, but it was like you were being swept away into some world that you would probably never get to see," says Horvath. (He joined the company as an art director 15 years ago.) "Nowadays, it's more grounded in reality and things aren't as posed on the covers. We're trying to make them a little more spontaneous, more like snapshots of a scene other than a posed scene. So things have changed a lot. We're not always looking for the perfect shot — we're looking for something that feels real and identifiable."

Blame it on the Billionaire, one of Harlequin's February releases. (Instagram/

This February, Harlequin debuts a new design strategy after spending two years consulting readers on the subject. (Though Harlequin publishes internationally and in 16 different languages, their fans are largely an English-speaking bunch, mostly found in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. According to company rep Carol Dunsmore, they skew young — think 18-34).

"They want real life on those covers," says Horvath — "real life" in the vein of This is Us, anyway (his example). "You know, it doesn't always have to be picture perfect."

The changes are probably imperceptible to the non-connoisseur. In the February covers, women are still clinging to cowboys and billionaires and firemen — though occasionally cowboys and billionaires and firemen of colour. (In June, Harlequin will launch Carina Adores, their first line of LGBTQ stories for print.)

"I still see the essence of what we do today in what we did yesterday," says Horvath, and to Semmelhack, that legacy produced thousands of "real works of art."

"Divisions right between high and low and art and illustration: I think those concepts are increasingly being blurred," she says. "It was a form of Canadian art that I think a lot of people, historically, weren't taking seriously."

Harlequin cover art by Gary McLaughlin. (Courtesy of the artist)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.