Friday, 28 October 2016

Fifteen of Peter Elson's haunting, beautiful science fiction paperback cover illustrations

I've been spending a lot of time on Pinterest recently, pursuing all sorts of odd enthusiasms... of which just happens to be a liking for old science fiction paperback covers. This dates back to the late '70s, when I worked for the publisher New English Library, which not only produced some of the best SF covers of that era, but, for a while, published Science Fiction Monthly,  a large-format magazine featuring some of the best artwork the genre had to offer (albeit on low-grade paper, which somewhat spoiled the effect). The British artist, Peter Elson, got going towards the end of my time there, but turned out to be one of the genre's greatest-ever practitioners - especially when it came to startlingly detailed depictions of dirty great spaceships, often set against misty, indistinct backgrounds which emphasised the extraordinary realism of the craft:
To be honest, I'm not a massive fan of modern science fiction, especially of the space opera variety. I tend to prefer short stories, and my favourite writers - Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Alfred Bester, C.M. Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, R.A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith - mainly did their best work in the '50s or '60s. But while I doubt that the quality and inventiveness of SF writing has improved since those days, the cover art certainly has: the Golden Age of Science Fiction writing was well over by the late '70s - but a Golden Age of Science Fiction illustration had begun, and Elson was one of its major stars:
Now, if this sort of thing doesn't appeal to you, I'm not going to tell you you're wrong: this is craft rather than art, and it either "works" by having an immediate impact on the beholder or it doesn't. All I can tell you is that, in my case, Elson's illustrations elicit the response they're supposed to - they jump-start my imagination by providing an immediate visual jolt of strangeness, of otherness: as in the title of the book illustrated above, they reawaken that sense of wonder many of us start to lose with the onset of puberty. 
Peter Elson, who attended Ealing College of Art before moving to Colchester and starting his extraordinarily influential career as an illustrator/artist, died of a heart attack in 1998 while working on a mural. He was 51, which seems bloody unfair. There's a good gallery of his work available here, on a website dedicated to his work. 

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