It may at first seem incongruous that I should be such a big fan of the superstar psychedelic graphic artist and designer Alan Aldridge, but I am. I’ve been looking at his art for years, and I’ve never found anything in his work that I might successfully steal for use in my own; it’s wildly colorful, exuberantly detailed, and technically very slick – in short, everything that my own work is not. But he is fascinating; Alan Aldridge was more than just psychedelic — he was a masterful artist and his books reward careful scrutiny.
He was a terrific book designer as well, working early on in his career for British newspapers and magazines, and finally ending up as an art director at Penguin. Many mid-60’s Penguin fiction titles have covers that have been designed by Aldridge, with his own custom typefaces, layouts, illustrations and photos. Even the ones that were done before he discovered his distinctive airbrush style look singular and attractive.
Through Penguin he got to know the glitterati of 60’s London, became friends with the Beatles, and went on to his first big success, the two volumes of The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics – superb anthologies of then-current graphic artists.
His next success was the artwork for Elton John’s album ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’: I’m afraid that I never owned it, but I know from reading Aldridge’s excellent career overview The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes that it was the design work for this album that made him a celebrity on a par with his rock ‘n roll friends.
All very interesting, but this is a blog about books, not LP’s, and so I come now to how I really fell in love with Alan Aldridge – his series of picture books that began with The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, based on an 1807 chapbook by William Roscoe.
This book was also immensely successful – probably not as successful as his rock ‘n roll graphics, but hugely successful in children’s book terms – and I’m pretty sure that it also shows that he was a man who knew the fantastic creations of the French 19th century artist J J Grandville, and that he had closely studied Les Animaux for inspiration.
And it also shows that he couldn’t quite leave the world of Prog Rock: ‘The Butterfly Ball‘ was turned into a rock opera by no less a personage than Roger Glover from Deep Purple. The record was hugely popular, especially here in The Netherlands; but that didn’t keep the packaging department from misspelling poor Roger’s name on the cover!
Aldridge followed The Butterfly Ball with The Peacock Party and The Lion’s Cavalcade, and as the series went on his work became even more flamboyant and rococo in style; in fact some of the pictures in The Lion’s Cavalcade have such obsessive amounts of baroque detail that they remind me of the late drawings of the schizophrenic cat artist Louis Wain, and some of the Mannerist portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo in which people are composed of various vegetables.
I found my copy of The Peacock Party from a used book stall here in Amsterdam, and when I got home I was delighted to find that it was a signed copy – something that I think the bookseller was not aware of!
He did two other illustrated children’s books before he got tired of the form and stopped – one was The Ship’s Cat, a seagoing Elizabethan tale written by Watership Down author Richard Adams; a very handsome book, and lovingly researched. Quite a lot of fun to read, but actuallly I found the other much more interesting . . .
Called Ann in the Moon, he illustrated it even before The Butterfly Ball, and at the time it was apparently popular enough for The Observer to do a cover story on it. Unlike his later extravaganzas, no one remembers it today, and it’s not easy to find. I think it’s one of the strangest and most charming books that I own. If you are ever lucky enough to find a good copy, I would pounce on it.
Sadly, Alan Aldridge passed away recently, in 2017. He continued doing more design and interesting illustration work as the 60’s and early 70’s faded away, and he created two more titles: Phantasia and The Gnole, but I haven’t yet found copies of them. When I do I’m sure that I will have to add two more carriages to the Tsundoku Line.