The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Alan Aldridge 1943-2017


British artist and designer Alan Aldridge died last week aged 73. In the words of designer Mike Dempsey, Aldridge “was a major influence on the British design and illustration scene in the 1960’s.” Although he is perhaps best known for his work for The Beatles, The Who and Elton John (not to mention his infamous poster for Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls) it began, Dempsey notes, “with his controversial post as fiction art director of Penguin Books in 1965 where he challenged the status quo, upsetting many on the way.”

The Guardian obituary explains how Aldridge got his start in design:  

Sheer chutzpah won him his first job at a design agency, where he passed off his girlfriend’s portfolio of work as his own and was hired for £3 a week. “I blag beautifully,” as he put it. When he turned up to work the following Monday and was told to wear a suit, he went to Bethnal Green baths and stole one.

He drew portraits in his spare time, and as news of his abilities spread, he was recruited as a trainee by Germano Facetti, the art director at Penguin Books. Aldridge worked his way up to designing book covers, then was offered a job as a junior visualiser at the Sunday Times. The paper had the UK’s first colour supplement, offering new opportunities in design and photography that Aldridge was keen to exploit.

His most memorable contribution was his transformation of a Mini into a four-wheeled work of art, handpainted by Aldridge in a hectic 24-hour session. It was the magazine’s cover image in October 1965, with the title Automania. Meanwhile he had still been creating covers for Penguin, and was lured away from the Sunday Times to become Penguin’s fiction art director. Aldridge set about creating a radical, freewheeling new look for Penguin’s catalogue.

Aldridge talked more about this unorthodox beginning in this video:

My introduction to Aldridge was the revised 1971 edition of The Penguin Book of Comics, the book he conceived with George Perry (the cover of the first edition, originally published in 1967, is pictured above). I found it on the shelf in my grandparents house and pored over the pages of reproduced art. The book was my first introduction to American comics, and the idea that comics could be taken (somewhat) seriously. I found Aldridge’s illustrations, which also appear throughout the book, confusing and fascinating in equal measure. I know they reminded me of Heinz Edelmann’s art for Yellow Submarine — I think for a while I assumed they were by the same person — but you can read about Aldridge’s own work with The Beatles in this 2005 article from Eye Magazine

Aldridge refused to call himself an artist, illustrator, or designer. Instead he was a self-styled ‘graphic entertainer’, a precursor of today’s designer-entrepreneur, who had created a moderately successful product called ‘Put-Ons’, tattoo skin transfers. He was also always pitching projects that could turn a profit. He even convinced Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, to produce a book of Dylan lyrics. But when Sgt. Pepper’s was released in 1967, Aldridge had an idea that promised surefire success.

‘I noticed the initials of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ spelled LSD and decided that it would be fun to explore visually the hidden meaning in the Pepper’s lyrics. I called Paul (who I’d never met, but had his home phone number) and said I’d like to interview him [about this], and much to my amazement he not only said yes, he said let’s do it now and come right away to his house in St John’s Wood. You don’t argue with an edict like that.’ The interview and accompanying illustrations appeared in 1967 in The Observer under the headline: ‘A Good Guru’s Guide to the Beatles Sinister Songbook.’ Bags of fan mail rapidly followed. ‘It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I was on to something. So I pitched a dummy of the book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, which had three or four spreads of illustrated lyrics, to Peter Brown (Beatle manager Brian Epstein’s partner for many years) at Apple. The book would have all the lyrics from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day In The Life’ illustrated by famous artists; I think I even mentioned getting Picasso, Dali and Magritte! Peter showed the layouts to John and Paul and got the boys’ okay.’

Having Lennon and McCartney’s sanction, however, did not mean Aldridge instantly nailed the book. He still had to present the project to Dick James, owner of Northern Songs, which published and co-owned the Lennon / McCartney lyrics. ‘Dick liked what he saw, then curve-balled me,’ Aldridge winces. ‘An American publisher had come to him with a similar deal, and had offered a lot of money, but since I had the boys’ okay he’d give me two weeks to get a publishing deal that gave him an advance of £20,000, a huge sum in 1968.’ For a week, Aldridge phoned every publishing house in London and New York, explaining the urgency. He was, however, turned down by everyone. ‘Not because of the large advance, but because they all thought the Beatle phenomena wouldn’t last another year.’

The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge, a catalogue of Aldridge’s work, is available from Abrams.

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