Our artist of the week: Alan Aldridge

When the news filtered through to us in February of the death of the man formerly dubbed “Beardsley in blue jeans” or – to use John Lennon’s epithet – “His Royal Master of Images to Their Majesties The Beatles” – we couldn’t help but reflect on another sad sign of the passing of the ‘60s and ‘70s creative guard.

What are we talking about? Well, the English graphic designer, artist and illustrator was a central force behind much of what we associate with the culture of those decades: the pop, the psychedelia, the subversion and so much more besides.

There are certain singular artistic feats with which the Anglophiles reading this may already associate Aldridge.  Perhaps it’s the fantastical anthropomorphic illustrations of insects that the Londoner provided for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, which won the Whitbread children’s book award.  Or maybe it’s the poster The Great US Disaster, which devastatingly satirised then-president Richard Nixon’s America, or another poster some years earlier for Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s challenging experimental underground film Chelsea Girls.

Alan Aldridge - Butterfly Ball

Inspired by William Roscoe’s 1807 poem of the same name, Alan Aldridge’s The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year award on its release in 1973.

The Great US Disaster

The Great US Disaster, 1971.  A poster with caricatures of then-president Richard Nixon and his vice-president Spiro Agnew.  A great place for hamburgers, runs the tagline, but who’d want to live there! Image Source: The Guardian

We could go on and on – but first, let’s go back to the start of the story of a man who transformed art with zero formal art education.

A dizzying rise to the top

Aldridge’s story is like that of so many artistic greats: born in Mile End in the East End of London in 1943, he left school and subsequently worked through a succession of jobs, firstly at the English capital’s Banana Wharf, where he unloaded cargo boats.

He later served as an insurance clerk, a barrow boy at Stratford Market, a chicken plucker at a halal butcher’s shop and perhaps most momentously, a scene painter at The Old Vic.  So began his incredible ascendancy to a long-held status as one of the ‘in-est’ artists in London, beginning in 1963 when he would draw portraits around the pubs of Soho.

Although Aldridge secured his first job as an illustrator for The Sunday Times Magazine, it wasn’t long before he was on the move again, building on his experience as a freelance designer for Penguin Books by taking up a position as an art director for the firm in 1965.

Sending art-house erotica into the mainstream

The following year saw Aldridge create one of the images that will forever be one of his most memorable.  Warhol, after a long line of both feature-length and short avant-garde art films, was shooting what would turn out to be his first major commercial success, a movie that used split screen to tell the story of women staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.

While the film certainly caused a stir, albeit not in a good way for many viewers – Roger Ebert describing it as having “little intrinsic worth” and Variety calling it “a pointless, excruciatingly dull three-and-a-half hours” – it has since come to be regarded as a cult classic.

The most triumphant aspect of the movie to this day, however, may well be its poster by Aldridge, who placed various suggestive artistic elements upon an image of the naked 16-year-old model and later artist in her own right, Clare Shenstone.

Alan Aldridge - Chelsea Girls

Signed movie poster for Chelsea Girls, 1966.  An Andy Warhol movie that used split screen to tell the story of women staying at the Chelsea Hotel.

Described by The Guardian in the artist’s obituary as “a notorious tour de force”, the poster met with suggestions that Aldridge could be arrested on pornography charges. But there was no bigger fan of the raunchy image than Warhol, who lamented that he “wished the movie was as good”.

Indelibly associated with the Fab Four… and so many more

Nobody could accuse Aldridge of a failure to build lucrative connections in the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s.  After all, it’s hard to do better in that regard than a close relationship with surely the greatest band of all time, the incomparable Beatles, for whom he provided reality-warping illustrative interpretations of such songs as “Yellow Submarine”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Nowhere Man” for The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics in 1969.

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics Book Cover 1969

“The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics” Book Cover, 1969

This was far from his first association with the group, that having come in 1966, when he illustrated Nova magazine’s review of their Revolver album.  It was this that captured the attention of Lennon, and it wasn’t long before Aldridge had formed his own design company – Ink – and embarked on such projects for the band as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” wallpaper and even the logo for their company, Apple Corps.

By the turn of the decade, there could hardly have been a hotter artist in London than Aldridge, particularly among pop and rock superstars such as The Who, for whom he supplied the artwork for the cover of their 1966 album A Quick One, and Elton John.  For the latter, he created the cover art for the 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, on which he even hoped to base a film, only for the project to founder after 18 months of work.

The Who - A Quick One Album Cover

Pop Art-inspired album sleeve designed for The Who’s second album, ‘A Quick One’ released 1966. The titles of tracks from the album can be seen coming out of the band member’s guitars; ‘Cobwebs and Strange’, ‘Whiskey Man’, ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ and ‘See My Way’. Source: NME

Captain Fantastic - Elton John

The Elton John album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, released in 1975, Image Source: The Guardian

Reflecting on a sometimes unsung pop art great

Aldridge later moved to LA permanently, becoming a film script doctor as well as a creative director for the House of Blues music venues and the Hard Rock Cafe.  2008 saw the staging of a major retrospective, Alan Aldridge – the Man with the Kaleidoscope Eyes at the Design Museum in London, and on 17th February 2017, he died, aged 73, from what was reported to be a “debilitating illness”.  

While Aldridge may not quite enjoy the level of name recognition of some of his pop art contemporaries, the man who came to refer to himself – quite rightly, we think – as a “graphic entertainer” will always be remembered for his dominance of the British advertising and editorial art scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Alan Aldridge

Alan Aldridge, 1943 – 2017, Image Source: Wikipedia