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David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space

Author: • Feb 26th, 2012 •

Category: America, Brigid Marlin, deep time, dystopia, Eduardo Paolozzi, entropy, enviro-disaster, inner space, interviews, Lead Story, visual art

David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space

David Pelham’s painting for JG Ballard’s short story, My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.


by James Pardey


David Pelham was Art Director at Penguin Books from 1968 to 1979 and created some of the publisher’s most celebrated cover art, including his famous cog-eyed droog for Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange in 1972 and his series of paintings for The Drought, The Drowned World, The Terminal Beach and other JG Ballard titles in the mid 1970s. Pelham’s paintings gave Ballard’s apocalyptic fiction its own unique mode of visual expression and are widely regarded as being the definitive Ballardian art.

Now, almost four decades later, David Pelham’s paintings are being released, actual size, as a series of limited edition signed prints by wire-frame. Here, Pelham discusses his paintings with James Pardey, whose essay on Ballard, Pelham and modern art, Landscapes From a Dream, was featured on Ballardian.com in 2010.


LEFT: David Pelham. Photo via.

JAMES PARDEY: You have been a great admirer of Ballard’s fiction since the 1960s. What drew you to it?

DAVID PELHAM: I was introduced to Jim Ballard through my friend the sculptor and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi some time in the 1960s. As a student at St Martin’s School of Art back in the mid 1950s I had already established a nodding aquaintance with Paolozzi, who at that time was teaching in the sculpture department. Though I was greatly attracted to his sculpture, at that time it was his obsession for creating ‘junk’ art from discarded printed material and his screenprints that most appealed to me. His montages cut from American movie and science-fiction fan mags featured such diverse elements as pin-ups, automobile and fast food ads, from Mickey Mouse characters to images of space junk; any bits of printed ephemera that excited his mind or his eye were roughly assembled – though skillfully juxtaposed – to make fresh, vibrant and intelligent art.

Paolozzi had first and famously presented the results of his notions to an assembly of influential artists and critics at a lecture delivered to the Independent Group of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Dover Street, London, in 1952. Titling his slide lecture Bunk, among the fast moving myriad of images that assaulted his unsuspecting audience was his collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The projected image was that of a montage featuring the cover of a trashy American magazine called Intimate Confessions. Among the other elements that made up this montage – alongside the inevitable garish pin-up – was a cloud of gunsmoke containing the word ‘POP’. Paolozzi’s wild slide-show had established him as one of the founding fathers of the Pop Art movement in the UK.

Both his graphic and sculptural work examined ideas that lay far beyond the prosaic academic methodology that was currently being taught. Paolozzi had delivered a well-aimed knee straight into the groin of the genteel middle-class art of the time, and you needed to have been there at that time to fully appreciate the shock and excitement that his ideas provoked. The thrilling 1960s had begun.

David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s novel, The Drought (Penguin edition, 1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.

I occasionally saw Eduardo at private views and art-related events between leaving St Martin’s and beginning a five-year stint as Art Editor of the art magazine Studio International in 1962. Paolozzi was an exceptionally generous and gregarious man whose conversation was as varied and original as his art. Whatever the occasion he appeared to know everybody in the room, and his generosity extended to widely sharing his many friends and aquaintances, skillfully introducing people who he felt might either share common interests or who might benefit in some oblique way from meeting each other.

It was at such a gathering at one of the Cork Street galleries where Eduardo introduced me to JG Ballard. I can still sense the excitement of that first meeting. Along with some enchanting exchanges and insights which augmented my belief in the interconnectedness of their virtual worlds, what struck me most was that, throughout the high-octane exchanges, Paolozzi – an extremely widely read man – would repeatedly attempt to swing the conversation around to literature. But Ballard would have none of it, constantly and ingeniously manoeuvring the conversation back to the visual arts. So much so that I got the sense that, not only did Ballard find Eduardo’s work as stimulating as I did, but he also left me with the distinct impression that he would rather have been a painter than a writer. Thankfully he never abandoned the typewriter for the paintbrush.

The next time I met Ballard was at a house party somewhere in Notting Hill. It must have been the early ’70s because I remember we not only discussed The Drought, which Cape had published in 1965, but also Eduardo’s strange and wonderful book Abba Zabba which had been published in an edition of 500 copies in 1970. The pages of Abba Zabba are stuffed with pungent and even worrying newsprint images that appear to catalogue the remnants of our civilization’s descent into chaos. This brilliant selection of apocalyptic imagery is accompanied by extended fragmentary captions which I can only describe as evoking a witty iconoclastic text by Ballard that has been cut and pasted by William Burroughs.

Throughout the pages of Abba Zabba we see the Ballardian highways, the high-rise concrete blocks, the wrecked automobiles, corpse-strewn beaches and scenes of violent unrest, military intervention and shattered landscapes alarmingly juxtaposed with incongruous photographs of smiling pin-ups and domestic scenes. One only has to riffle through its pages to appreciate how closely these two brilliant artists pivoted upon a common fulcrum. Indeed they both moved effortlessly into the art of no boundaries, fusing the powerful quasi-scientific realms of their imagination, leading us into their studied worlds of nihilism and chaos, and it remains a great disappointment to me that all my attempts to instigate a large format special collaboratory Ballard/Paolozzi publication when I was Art Director of Penguin Books were repeatedly rejected.

David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World (Penguin edition, 1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.

Your Ballard paintings are suffused with a haunting beauty. What was your inspiration?

That’s easy. Jim Ballard and his remarkable writing was my inspiration. It went like this. My first visits to Ballard’s home in Shepperton, ‘the paradigm of nowhere’ as he called it, were with Paolozzi. The animated conversations at these very convivial occasions were far more directed to the visual arts, painting in particular, but also sculpture, cinema, theatre and so forth, rather than to literature. Once again Jim was showing a far greater interest in painting rather than writing.

Were it not for my fierce and long-standing admiration for their obsessions and appreciation of their work, I think it unlikely that I could have made much sense of – let alone taken part in – the oblique conversational ciphers and elaborated codes that brought that rather soulless suburban front room to sparking and electrifying life on those occasions. Enthusiastic references to the mundane flotsam of society such as supermarkets, car wrecks, motorways, high-rise towers, popular science, Pacific islands, office blocks, fan mags, movies, airlines, war, the military, atomic tests and advertising art; all were among the ingredients mixed into this potent conversational cocktail, an elixir that tended to leave me reeling. But as the years go by the more I realise how very privileged I was to have witnessed these two creative giants discussing their similar aesthetic obsessions, the very stuff of their creativity.

And so it was that when Penguin Books scheduled four Ballard titles in the mid 1970s, because of our previous association and my admiration of his writing, I called Jim to discuss his covers. I explained that I was a great admirer of the work of the German artist Konrad Klapheck, painter of monumentalised everyday machinery such as typewriters and sewing machines. The dynamic, low eye-line perspective and cold precision of Klapheck’s imagery struck me as a good starting point for a set of visually strong and related covers, and at that point I was considering commissioning the project to Klapheck.

I duly posted examples of Klapheck’s work to Ballard. He was enthusiastic, and we arranged another visit to discuss the project. In anticipation of that meeting I quickly airbrushed a thumbnail sketch of a wrecked jukebox half buried in the sand, a reference from The Terminal Beach. I positioned the jukebox at an angle, suggestive of a neglected tombstone. Satisfied with the impact of the image, I then produced a variety of objects half buried in sand, all of which shared a common horizon, a strong yet simple device that related all four covers and clearly signalled that these books belonged together.

David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s short-story collection, The Terminal Beach (Penguin edition, 1977). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.

Why a Cadillac, the Chrysler Building, the atom bomb and so on?

Bunkers, crash-test dummies, Coca Cola bottles, a jukebox as I have said, a variety of objects were tried before we settled on the Cadillac, the Fat Boy bomb, the TV console and the Chrysler Building. These were chosen for their looks and their relevance at that time. Remember that this was back in the mid ’70s, and that these objects had an edgy fashionability and were very much part of the zeitgiest.

When I showed the thumbnails to Ballard he became very enthusiastic, and despite his admiration of Klapheck’s work he insisted – on the evidence of my sketches – that I should paint the images myself. I still have some of those early thumbnails, and I notice in the margin of one of them are my notes, quickly scribbled at that meeting and obviously suggested by Ballard. The notes say ‘monumental / tombstones / airless thermonuclear landscape / horizons / a zone devoid of time’.

That was a great brief and I set about attempting to do it justice. I started with extensive experiments with different inks and colour combinations, reading and re-reading Ballard’s texts for clues, admiring once again how vividly and effortlessly he was able to transfer the fabric of his extraordinary inventions – his fascinating mental landscapes – from his mind’s eye to that of the reader. Wishing to avoid the well-trodden representational avenues of science fiction illustrators, and also wishing to pay homage to Ballard’s playful involvement with paradox and surrealism, I found myself needing to represent the landscape in which the ‘monuments’ were to be situated as not so much the evocation of a place, but rather of a state of mind: the airless zone, devoid of time, that Jim had asked for.

In my view the sense of eternal silence that I strived to achieve in these paintings should only be broken by the military TV console that appeared on The Four-Dimensional Nightmare. Were it possible, this painting alone should have audio accompaniment: sounds of Micky Mouse music and his squeaky voice clashing with the scratchy radio crackles of Mission Control, a jagged cacophony jabbering to nobody in an empty, airless thermonuclear zone devoid of time. Yes, that carries a particular romance for me.

All four paintings for these covers are rendered in considerable detail, which suggests careful research. Can you recall your references?

At that time you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or a magazine without seeing images of the Fat Boy atomic bomb. Rough monochrome halftones of it appeared everywhere, and the TV console was probably cut from an article about US military security from Scientific American or some such magazine.

However, reference for the Cadillac and the Chrysler Building came by courtesy of the famous German photographer Evelyn Hofer from photographs that appeared in her fine book New York Proclaimed, one of her ‘city’ series published in 1964 by Chatto & Windus and William Heinemann. Evelyn’s photographs accompanied a sparkling text by V. S. Pritchett. She was married to my great friend, the photographer Humphrey Sutton, and over lunch one day, with characteristic charm, Evelyn gave me permission to use her photographs as reference.

David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s short-story collection, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (Penguin edition, 1977). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.

Staying with the Cadillac, the front cover of Neil Young’s 1974 album On The Beach had a montaged beach scene on it. Among other things on the beach was the back end of a Cadillac appearing out of the sand. Jungian synchronicity, or is there a simpler answer?

Yes, this album cover was brought to my attention only recently. Jungian synchronicity or coincidence? Who knows? But a far more interesting example of coincidence, collective unconscious, Jungian synchronicity or whatever you want to call it occurred shortly after Penguin published The Drought. I received a photograph from an outfit in San Francisco, a collective who called themselves The Ant Farm. The picture showed an installation they were creating somewhere in the desert. It was a sculpture made up of a row of 1950s automobiles half buried in the sand with their back ends sticking into the air at just the right angle. There were six or seven of them in a row, and it was an extremely accomplished and thrilling piece of work. Anyway, they had seen the Ballard cover and – while I don’t remember any mention of Jungian synchronicity – I can certainly recall that the phrase ‘collective unconscious’ came up several times in the ensuing correspondence; maybe zeitgeist, even.

Cover for Neil Young’s On the Beach (1974).

So, when visiting San Francisco the following year I dropped in on The Ant Farm and found a delightful bunch of clever young people working on very original and daring ideas. We talked at length and got on very well, agreeing that there was a lot of automobile-related art happening at that time. César was still compressing automobiles, Rosenquist was painting them, and the wonderful Edward Kienholz’s tableau Back Seat Dodge, with it’s teenage back seat lovers, beer bottles and racoon tail on the radio aerial, was much in evidence. The piece was the back end of a classic fifties high-school vehicle that was never going anywhere, capable of producing nothing more than abortions and tears. We parted after a long and delightful lunch in the sunshine, finishing up with a rowdy and rousing toast to ‘coincidence’.

One of the stories in The Terminal Beach has a protagonist named Pelham. Is that a coincidence too?

Jim Ballard was a most charming man, and even though he is no longer with us I find his dry, mischievous sense of humour can still amuse and delight me from beyond the grave. As we had a lot of aquaintances in common in those days I am sometimes amused when reading his work to come across the occasional character who bears the name of someone we both knew. To my further enjoyment he sometimes develops this endearingly playful trait by subjecting his character to punishments that he obviously considered appropriate for the real life namesake. For instance, one such identifiable character appears, only to be crushed by falling masonry two or three pages later. Jim was known to be a bit of a magpie as far as names were concerned, and it tickles me to think that there may be people out there, quietly going about their lives, quite oblivious to the fact that a ghosted version of their persona is doomed to playing a role in one of Jim’s weird fictional creations for the rest of time.

I know that the American artist Brigid Marlin, who painted copies of lost canvases by Paul Delvaux for Ballard, took great exception to finding her name appearing as a character in The Kindness of Women. And as for Roger Pelham – the rather dispassionate Lecturer of Physiology and protagonist of Ballard’s short story, ‘The Reptile Enclosure’ – I was told by someone who should know that Jim had borrowed my name. And if he did, then he’s more than welcome.

David Pelham’s cover illustration for Anthony Burgess’s, A Clockwork Orange (Penguin edition, 1972). Signed print courtesy wire-frame.

The cog-eyed droog that you created for A Clockwork Orange is an iconic image that is recognised worldwide and frequently appears in lists of all-time top ten book covers. Yet you have said in the past that you are not keen on this image. Why is that?

When I was Art Director of Penguin Books I had to create this image in one night. We planned to bring out a film tie-in of Burgess’s wonderful book to coincide with the release of the movie, and we obviously urgently needed a strong cover image that related to the film. When Stanley Kubrick unaccountably refused to supply us with promotional press shots I immediately commissioned a well-known illustrator to help out. The result was not only unacceptable but it was also inexcusably late, so we were horribly out of time. Having already attended a press screening of Kubrick’s film I had a very clear image in my mind’s eye as to how the cover should look and so, collecting up a few supplies from the art department, I sped home to my Highgate flat to create the cover myself. I remember a motorcycle messenger arriving at 4.30am to deliver the ‘repro’ – that is the typography – for the paste up. This of course was a long time before the age of computers, and everything was done with ink, glue and ‘repro’, which had to be painstakingly stuck in place on a base board. Another messenger arrived at 7am to whisk the artwork off to the printer. Consequently I had not had time to properly scrutinize the image, to make the small adjustments and refinements that I still believe it needed. So now, every time I see that image, all I see are the mistakes. But then, maybe it’s those unfinished rough edges that contribute to its appeal. Who knows?


Limited edition framed prints of David Pelham’s paintings are available from fine art publisher wire-frame. Each print is individually hand-signed and numbered by David Pelham and supplied with a Certificate of Authenticity. Ballardian readers can get 20% off using discount code JGB74 (expires 31 March 2012). See wire-frame.net/fineart.html.


..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘A temporarily tame tiger’: Brigid Marlin on J.G. Ballard, Paul Delvaux and surrealist art
+ Flaunting Conventions: Paolozzi, Ballard and Bax
+ Landscapes From a Dream: How the Art of David Pelham Captured the Essence of J G Ballard’s Early Fiction
+ Woefully Underconceptualised’: Rick McGrath on J.G. Ballard’s Cover Art
+ Collapsing Bulkheads: the Covers of Crash

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17 Responses »

  1. Fantastic! Now, if only JG’s other cover artists had taken the same interest…

  2. David Pelham’s book covers were what made me read Ballard for the first time. I had never heard of J.G. Ballard, but Pelham’s art was the gateway drug into a marvelous world. It started with THE DROWNED WORLLD, and I have’nt looked back since. Unfortunately due to a lot of moving around, those treasured Penguin editions got lost in the slipstream. I have other editions of Ballard’s work, but those Pelham covers were one of a kind.

  3. I think Ballard has been largely ill-served by the graphic design and illustration for most editions of his books I have seen, including these Penguin editions with Mr. Pelham’s covers. They are similar to many British illustrations of that era–perfect, textureless surfaces, bright colors, an apparent lack of human hand behind the art–and they reflect an illustration aesthetic I have always disliked, and they do not at all evoke the feeling I get when I read Ballard. To be fair, I assume Ballard probably disagreed entirely, and likely admired Mr. Pelham’s covers as being akin to the airless, surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dali, whose works he adored.

    I like the very early American paperbacks with Richard Powers covers and the fairly recent Harper Perennial uniform paperback editions of nearly all of Ballard’s work, which feature stenciled covers in imitation of images one might find spray-painted on walls in urban environments.

  4. David Pelham better known in another circle as the author of the still excellent Penguin Book of Kites published in 1976. http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielandkatie/6192713250/

  5. Richard Powers!! Rick Mc Grath to the thread!!!

  6. Hah… Bob II, you provocateur!

    Yes, my opinions on Pelham and Powers have been reported on this site and my own, so no need to get excited. However, Robert1014’s assessment of Pelham’s illustrations may be the result of a misreading of the text. Take the A-Bomb on the cover of Terminal Beach. Roger Luckhurst points out in “The Angle Between Two Walls” that the yarn’s “synthesis of the historical and psychic zero” is ambiguous, combining both the Freudian theory of the death instinct, the desire for nothingness, with Jungian ideas of the mandala, the “ultimate circle, below ground zero”, as Traven says, or the completion of the Self. In many ways Pelham’s art captures this embodied ambiguity in its combination of detail and flatness, technology and nature. Airbrushing always gives a technical feel to what’s represented, and JGB’s post-freudian extension of the death instinct — he extends it to include the impact of the cold war on human psychology — is beautifully rendered in Pelham’s almost-fetishistic attention to a hyperreal version of the Fat Man bomb. It’s the psychological version of Schrödinger’s Cat.

    Pelham also trumps Powers in terms of generating mini-poster images that attract and draw the eye of the consumer. Like Daniel, the first Ballard I ever bought was this 1974 edition. These covers evoke deep psychic mysteries which beautifully reflect Ballard’s themes of the unconscious, and thanks to wire-frame and Dave Pelham for making them available to collectors.

  7. Hey, Rick, I don’t think my distaste for Pelham’s covers for Ballard’s book has to do with anything but my dislike for them as pictures. For all Pelham’s evident skill, they simply leave me cold. I find this sort of thing–brightly colored and carefully rendered in airbrush–kitschy. I particularly identify such illustration with British illustrators of that era.

    I don’t argue that Powers’ more extravagant pictures better capture the mood of Ballard’s world, as they do not. I just like them better as pictures.

    By the way, regarding the critique on your website of Powers’ cover for THE BURNING WORLD: the cover is not an inapt imagining by Powers based on the book’s title, but depicts in one picture a series of events in the novel.

    Your site looks very intriguing, and I look forward to perusing it at length.

  8. Well, Robert, there’s nothing one can say in the face of subjectivism, so you don’t like what you don’t like… as for Powers’ cover of Burning World, I can’t recognize any “event” in the novel, save the burning of Mount Royal by Lomax or Quilter in chapter 5. However, where exactly in the story do the characters run up a hill to escape the burning of a skyscraper-studded Mount Royal? And why is there an ocean visible in the distance? And where is this hill? — there’s none in the novel. And, ultimately, Burning World is not about escape from fire or drought, but about how a person can lose their unhappy memories in an extinction of the ego.

    Anyway, hope you enjoy my site!

  9. Rick, if you recall in The Burning World, Ransom and his small party make their way to the seashore, which is teeming with people. After a time they decide to return to their starting point, and on their way back they are followed by someone (Quilter?) who sets a series of fires in places they had recently passed through. There’s a chapter called “The Smoke Fires,” from which this passage is drawn:

    “By day, when they set out again, they would see the fires burning behind then. The dark plumes rose from the desert floor, marking the progress of the riverbed from the south. Sometimes six or sen fires would burn simultaneously in a long line, their billows leaning against the sky.”

    This one paragraph may be the inspiration for Powers’ cover, but he might also have meant to dramatize the whole of their return journey inland with the single image.

    As for whether there is a hill in the novel…I can’t say I remember, but this is trivial. Power’s image makes sense graphically and dramatically, and it serves the primary purpose of a book’s cover: to draw the eye of the bookstand browser, and to act as an inducement to the browser to pick up the book and buy it.

  10. Dear James, in another act of synchronicity, I saw this video yesterday and realized it reminded of something. Then it came to me: The Drought cover by Pelham. So I come on the site today to find that just over a month ago this discussion started!!!
    Anyway hope you find it interesting.
    All the best.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1l9WST5lXM

    Go straight to 0:34 for the first decent shot of it.

  11. Dear Michael,

    That is great, thank you for pointing it out. I have forwarded the link to David Pelham who will, I am sure, be greatly amused. The fact that the car is simply there with no reference to it in the lyric makes it fairly clear, I think, where they got the idea from!

    All the best,

    James.

  12. [...] out of all the ones I’ve seen. It’s also one of my favourite books. It was designed by David Pelham, who was Art Director at Penguin Books from 1968 to [...]

  13. [...] (2012) ”David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space” at [...]

  14. [...] David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space [...]

  15. [...] http://www.ballardian.com/pelham-art-of-inner-space [...]

  16. [...] with author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick, he truly made history. You can read and interview with Pelham on The Ballardian and if you have a little patience, you can enjoy the story of the cog-eyed droog movie poster [...]

  17. […] cover in a single night after an illustrator’s first attempt was deemed inadequate. Even so, in an interview, Pellham confessed that when he looks at the cover, all he sees “are […]

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