It’s always rather interesting (and satisfying) when one of one’s long-held suspicions is confirmed in print. Here’s an entertaining and very revealing interview with the dean of British SF paperback cover artists, Chris Foss. Chris, now 65, enjoyed a very evocative childhood for a future artist. Born in 1946, he grew up in Guernsey, on one of the Channel Islands which had been occupied by the the Germans during much of the war and where they had constructed a number of massive concrete fortifications. Those abandoned gun emplacements and forts served as his childhood playgrounds. His parents used a thousand pounds they received from the sale of a Picasso etching they’d bought for seven pounds in a draper’s shop to tour postwar Europe, spending a great deal of time in defeated Germany, where Chris enjoyed playing in abandoned Wehrmacht bunkers and visiting former Nazi monuments now crowded with tent cities of refugees. As a commercial artist, he split his efforts between erotica and science fiction (much like American SF authors Barry N. Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, and Norman Spinrad did in the 1960s and 1970s).
My earliest exposure to Chris’s work came in 1980, when my family made the first of three successive summer holiday trips to different parts of Great Britain and Ireland. I was in the middle of my own, personal “Golden Age of Science Fiction” (my teen reading years) and had been devouring volume after volume of classic novels and anthologies. I was extremely interested to go into English, Scottish, and Irish bookstores and news merchants to see what their SF books looked like. I brought home a number of J. G. Ballard paperbacks and a nice Corgi edition of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.
One thing I immediately noticed was that all of the covers I saw on display, for several dozen SF titles, appeared to have been painted by the same artist. They all featured vaguely organic-looking spaceships of gigantic scope or equally massive plantetary surface exploration vehicles. Many of the books were classic works written by American SF authors, many of which had nothing at all to do with space travel or other planets (A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan is one example I remember). Yet every single one (Slan included) was illustrated with a honking huge spaceship on the cover. I recall thinking to myself, “Either the artist was completely unfamiliar with most of these books when he illustrated them, or British publishers think the only way to sell science fiction is with a really cool looking spaceship.”
Ah, here’s the money quote from that article on Chris Foss in The Independent:
“(Foss) found himself in huge demand around the time of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the moon landings, when the world suddenly went crazy for science fiction. He was so busy that he became famous for not reading the books he illustrated and for creating covers which had literally no bearing on the contents of the book. But the publishers were happy and the commissions kept coming.”
I knew it, Chris Foss! Still love your work, in any case.