Practical Magic

From humble beginnings drawing tramps in Bethnal Green Library to a hotline to the Fab Four (via over forty Penguin covers), Alan Aldridge was the original rock and roll illustrator. We look back at an entertaining afternoon that Steven Bateman spent with the so-called ‘Beardsley in Blue Jeans’.

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All You Need Is Love, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, 1968

June 2008. It’s a typically overcast evening in Hackney and I’m on the phone. “It’s around 85 degrees here,” says the voice on the other end of the line. We’re talking about the weather because, well, I’m a little nervous. The voice belongs to Alan Aldridge, one of the world’s finest graphic artists, whose canon of era-defining work will be celebrated this autumn with an exhibition at the Design Museum. 

At the age of twenty, having worked as a docker and a butcher for a spell, Aldridge found himself at a crossroads: should he be a poet or an actor? After much deliberation he chose illustration, despite the fact that he left school at fourteen. Self-taught and working class: not the easiest start in a profession dominated by educated middle-class types, but thanks to a combination of talent, drive and opportunism, he established himself as one of the UK’s most sought-after illustrators in little under a year. From meagre beginnings…

“My earliest influence was Tenniel. One night, my mum and I were washing up and there was a knock on the door. It was a chap selling magic lantern shows for sixpence. My mum got the price down and he came in, hung a sheet on the wall and proceeded to project Alice in Wonderland. I was six. I was totally blown away by Tenniel’s Alice drawings; his work is still the yardstick by which I measure my own work. Apart from that, British comic books were my formative art experience when I was a kid: the Beano, the Dandy and Chips. I loved those drawings; the boots with big knobbly toes, the little fat legs, the wide eyes… I opened comics and suddenly I’d be in there with the characters. I was a real daydreamer. I loved those journeys. One of the great things about illustration is you can enter this strange world of your own creation.”

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Captain Fantastic cover, 1975

He later paid homage to his love of comics, editing 1967’s Penguin Book of Comics, primarily because he couldn’t find any books on the subject. Talking about his influences, he recalls frequent forays to Bethnal Green Library. There, he found an art section waiting to be ransacked, developed a penchant for visionaries such as Bosch and Picasso and studied from some rather odorous life models. “That library took quite a beating. I removed pages from books on artists I liked and did little collages. I spent many formative hours there, with old tramps drying out, meths drinkers and other reprobates. The place smelled really bad, but I’d sit there and draw these tramps.”

Having made the decision to be an illustrator, things started to move relatively fast for the young Aldridge. It was the 60s, after all. “One of the reasons for the diversity of images in my early days is probably down to the fact that I learnt my trade in public. I was a very confident kid and I thought I deserved it all. I got lucky on a few occasions with the jobs I did, bearing in mind three years earlier I couldn’t decide between poetry or acting.”

Following a stint creating cover illustrations for Society magazine for “three quid a pop”, he caught the eye of Penguin’s legendary art director Germano Facetti, who commissioned some thirty or forty covers from Aldridge. Such was the rocket-like ascendancy of Aldridge’s star—stoked by an incredible work ethic and a keen eye for an opportunity—that he was appointed as Facetti’s successor at the age of twenty-three.

“Penguin needed to improve sales and appointed Tony Godwin—one of the best editors around—to transform this fuddy-duddy establishment into a modern publishing house. He called me one day and asked if I knew any American art directors who could take over Germano’s role. Being a cheeky sod, I said ‘I know the right person for the job—me.’ We laughed and he put down the phone. Two weeks later he called back: ‘Do you want the job?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but only if Germano says okay.’ I was his protégé, so I didn’t want to do it unless he said yes.”  

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Facetti approved, but it wasn’t a smooth transition for Aldridge. Godwin saw the young dandy in blue jeans and snakeskin boots as a rogue element in the corridors of power at Penguin HQ, and so he set him up in a studio in Holborn. If anything, the distance strengthened Aldridge’s conviction to revitalise Penguin. “I never went to Harmondsworth. Tony kept me away. He said it would only cause trouble. My idea from the off was to bring in new talent and introduce photography. Penguin rarely used photography, but it was a vibrant medium. We did shake it up a bit.” 

Outside of Penguin the commissions continued to roll in. Learning his trade in public did his reputation no harm: his distinctive style and resourceful approach distinguished him from his contemporaries. “I once had a weekend to do a cover for The Sunday Times Magazine, for an issue on cars called Automania. I painted a Mini in two halves, split it down the middle to make it look schizophrenic. It caused a sensation because in those days nobody thought an illustrator would rent a Mini for the weekend, paint it, clean it and take it back. No one did things like that back then. To me, once you’ve got the perfect solution, if you’re driven by some unknown force and grind it out, you’re unstoppable.”

 His approach was determined by a need to meet a constant stream of deadlines, and his response signalled the rise of a seemingly unstoppable creative force. “It was always a case of ‘okay, what have I got to produce and how much time have I got?’ That determined the medium. I wasn’t trying to be different every time, it was about working out the best way of achieving an end result that would communicate the idea and knock people’s socks off.”    

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In 1966 he did just that when he was invited to provide illustrations for an article in Nova celebrating the release of Revolver. Like the new Beatles album, his illustrations were a huge hit, garnering critical acclaim (in 1966 the Daily Mail referred to him as “Beardsley in blue jeans”), fan mail and VIP phone calls…

“They caused a sensation I don’t think anybody had seen anything like them before. The treatment of The Beatles was quite radical. They were usually depicted as mop-top blokes, and here were some very intriguing portraits. A lot of fans loved them; some hated them. Then I got a call from John, and it’s weird, because I knew exactly who was calling. I had a strong feeling it was John. I picked up the phone and this voice goes: [cue Alan’s superb Lennon impersonation] ‘Is that Alan Aldridge?’ Yes, I said. ‘It’s John Lennon here.’ He said how much he liked the pictures, asked if I sold stuff, and told me I’d got Dr Robert all wrong… I thought it was about Dr Barnard, who’d been in the news [for conducting the first human heart transplant], but Lennon said ‘No, it’s about a drug doctor in New York. You go to him and you feel fucking great.’”   

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There Is a Place, illustration for Daily Telegraph magazine cover, 1968

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F ront Cover, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, 1968

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, 1968

The Nova illustrations introduced Aldridge to a broader audience, but it was his fascination with the band’s lyrics that inspired his next Beatles-related triumph. When Sergeant Pepper came out he called Paul McCartney and asked if they could meet to discuss the lyrics in these peculiar new songs. McCartney invited him to his house there and then, an experience that remains one of Aldridge’s fondest memories. The interview, transformed into an article with sumptuous illustrations, appeared in the Observer (26 November 1967) to widespread acclaim and inspired his next project: The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. As editor, he drew up a wish list including some the world’s finest graphic artists. 

“I wanted to send them a song and have them send an image in. When the first five contributions came in… there was some naughty stuff. I showed the publisher and he freaked out. I filled in the holes, and you know how many holes there are in Blackburn, Lancashire…” 

His work during this period is characterised first of all by its diversity, but generally by a blend of soft, Art Nouveau lines, comic-book distortion and naïvety that captured (if not pre-empted) the psychedelic zeitgeist. Doors opened. The Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and The Who walked in. Lennon asked him to design the cover of his Penguin biography. Buoyed by his own success and an apparently limitless self-belief, he thrived.

“I thought I was as cool as anybody. It might sound pompous, but I felt like I was doing them a favour. I never felt overawed and I think they felt comfortable with me because I was their age and very much in the mould of a rock ‘n’ roller. It was an equal partnership really; nobody ever said ‘do this, that and the other’. I think they commissioned me thinking they were getting a bit of a ‘wonder kid’.”   

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Chelsea Girls, poster, 1970

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House of Blues, Jookin’, 1995

When the Arts Laboratory commissioned him to produce a poster for the UK release of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls film, they were working with one of London’s hottest properties, kicking up a storm of controversy and creating a design classic in the process. “When I had the idea I knew it was good. I knew it’d cause a stir. Printers refused to do it because they thought it was pornographic, so we had to get a pornographer to print it. The controversy started when it was illegally flyposted around London. The attempt to arrest me was ridiculous, because I was only responsible for the image… Andy called the Arts Laboratory saying he wished the film had been as good as the poster. Apparently he didn’t make many phone calls…” 

As the Sixties swung on Aldridge continued to work on some fascinating commissions, including album covers for Cream and The Who, an iconic image for the cover of the Daily Telegraph magazine showing Lennon climbing into his own head (one of the artist’s favourite images), posters for the Labour Party’s 1970 general election campaign, and a creative directorship for the original Hard Rock Café, whose logo he designed in 1971. By then he, like many others, had sought refuge in the countryside, moving the family to a Georgian mansion in Norfolk in a search for space and the time required to focus on larger projects. “That’s when I found William Roscoe’s 1804 poem, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.”

Keen to render the insect characters from life, Aldridge responded to an ad posted by a chap selling insects. As the project continued he bought more insects, until the vendor said: “You keep buying these insects… Where do you live?” “Norfolk,” replied Aldridge. “Blimey,” said the vendor, “you can get all these insects in your garden.” The book was, and remains, a visual triumph; a sumptuous smorgasbord of dazzling colours with beautifully rendered characters, the flora and fauna studied directly from nature. 

Published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in September 1973, The Butterfly Ball was a huge success, selling 50,000 copies in its three weeks, 250,000 by Christmas 1973 and over a million worldwide in its first year. “I thought it would do well,” says Aldridge, “but I never expected it to sell the numbers it ended up selling.” The book spawned a cartoon movie, merchandise, a hit album and concerts, and inspired Aldridge to create further illustrated books such as The Ship’s Cat (Jonathan Cape, 1977) and The Peacock’s Party (Jonathan Cape, 1979).

By the late Seventies the urge to translate his unique vision onto the silver screen prompted a move to Los Angeles, though his first taste of Hollywood came in 1975 when his design for an Elton John album cover, Captain Fantastic, was earmarked for development into an animated film. Having spent several months in LA developing the concept, the plug was pulled and he returned to the UK, but a seed had been sown.

“It felt totally different. If you wanted to be in the film business in England you had to scrape about [for funding]. In America, especially in LA, they always seemed more open to encouraging talent than they did in England.”

 In 1980 he moved Stateside permanently, and seems to have been working tirelessly on several film treatments, including some fascinating concepts that will, hopefully, see the light of day in the not too distant future. He’s also maintained his title as a ‘graphic entertainer’ with commissions for the House of Blues, American rock band Incubus, Penguin Classics and countless others, too many to list here. Many will appear in the Design Museum exhibition, alongside early works—“pulled out of a lock-up somewhere”, sketchbooks, photographs and original illustrations from books like The Butterfly Ball.

There’s more to Alan Aldridge than this correspondent can squeeze into a 2,000-word Profile… but you’re in luck. Head down to Shad Thames this autumn and feast your eyes on the work of a man whose talent and drive helped define a golden era in the history of graphic art.   

 Alan Aldridge, 1938-2017  

This article first appeared in Grafik 165, published in August 2008.