Pennington went onto produce a prolific body of memorable covers for SF, fantasy and horror paperbacks throughout the 1970s, developing an instantly recognisable style with his canvas capturing fevered visions directly piped from the cortex, taking life in a startling array of pinks, purples and blues, deep and vibrant. Pennington’s command of colour was awe-inspiring, and the printed results virtually glowed on the book-stands.
As well as the daring use of colour, Pennington’s work was linked by recurring themes; the planet Saturn, sometimes with the rings consisting of dense clouds of skulls and bones; smoking, flaming pyres billowing smoke into the sky; dry, always parched landscapes; shifting sands; skeletal remains of bizarre birds of prey and colour-drenched skies and cosmos.
During this Golden Age of paperback illustration in the UK, Pennington built up a strong following of fans that purchased books solely for his covers, with the contents a secondary concern.
Noticing the growing amount of fan-mail from readers and authors appreciative of Pennington’s approach, New English Library launched Science Fiction Monthly, an oversized magazine which although featuring stories and articles, was primarily a poster magazine dedicated to huge reproductions of Pennington’s art minus the intrusive titles and author credits. It was the nearest thing to being a rock star in the world of 1970s UK paperbacks!
Time may have wiped out the popular paperback industry, but forty years later many of the books of that era are fondly remembered, with Pennington still attracting a cult following of dedicated collectors who seek out and treasure the yellowing paperbacks sporting his fantastical and colourful paintings.
I had long been an admirer of Pennington but as an editor of a fanzine dedicated to genre paperbacks of the 1970s I realised I wasn’t alone as I received more requests for a feature on this artist than any other subject. I was also amazed at how many successful and contemporary artists of this day and age would express
their professional admiration for Pennington’s technique and how it had inspired them.
Recently the world-renowned Atlantis Occult Bookshop in London dedicated their gallery to a highly successful showcasing of some of Bruce’s most famous works. In addition to this well deserved recognition, I hope this website helps to introduce a new generation to his works, as well as providing a few surprises for even the most ardent collector of his art.
I am indebted to Bruce Pennington for his support, encouragement and patience in producing
And for those gorgeous colours!
“During the air raids, my mother used to stay the
night there just to keep her company. Just how
much my frequent visits there during my
formative years contributed to a love of all art
generally, I’ll never know.”
Throughout my life the example set by my parents - especially during the war - has been a hard act to follow. To me, they were real heroes in the truest sense of the word. Initially my father was a cinema projectionist in Hammersmith, whilst my mother was a children’s nanny. They both shared the same digs in Notting Hill Gate off Kensington Place, where they first met and fell in love. After they married, they set up home in Chelsea for a while before moving on to a larger flat in Lillie Road, Fulham. A transition that coincided with the inconvenient outbreak of World War Two.
Undaunted, that’s when they truly came into their own by donning their respective uniforms to help the nation’s war effort. Father joined the Army and was stationed with R.E.M.E. in Belgium to stem the flow of Nazi aircraft crossing over the Channel, whilst my mother’s mission was equally dangerous. She became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Fulham Ambulance Brigade, rescuing countless victims from the rubble during the Blitz years Despite the numerous horrors that she witnessed in those times, she has never retreated from declaring that they were the happiest days of her life. Counting an exiled Prince as her table-tennis partner, and an heiress as her closest friend, her social life began to blossom as never before. In the communal atmosphere of the time, so many class barriers were rapidly broken down in exchange for an attitude of “we’re all in it together”, so to speak. This was largely due to the constant knowledge that with the frequent enemy air raids, no-one knew for sure if they would live to see the next day as life was that vulnerable. Yet it was this very sense of danger that prompted my mother to take jobs that were most risky, such as nocturnal firewatch patrols, and not taking cover during air raids whilst comforting and helping other people.
Despite the hardships of war due to the likes of rationing, my father’s regular pay cheque from Belgium was generous enough to enable my mother to afford a few “perks” for me which included a nanny to take me by pram around the rich diversity of the metropolis, including some of the most elegant parks and gardens in the West End of London.
When my father returned at the end of the war celebratory events became even grander with his natural flair for all things “theatrical” taking over. As for companions and relations, they seemed endless, with numerous family friends acquiring the status of “auntie” or “uncle” during and after the war. One such dearly loved character was “Auntie Mamie” whose luxurious flat in Coleherne Court resembled an exotic museum packed with objects d’art of every kind. During the air raids, my mother used to stay the night there just to keep her company. Just how much my frequent visits there during my formative years contributed to a love of all art generally, I’ll never know.
The same could be said for the rich architectural environment that I grew up in. My regular push-chair outings invariably went up the Old Brompton Road into Knightsbridge, passing the twin gothic spires of the Natural History Museum and classical grandeur of the Brompton Oratory on the way. This little “Grand Tour” frequently ended up in that veritable palace of all things opulent, Harrods itself, where anything from a safety pin to an elephant was obtainable. Or so the saying went.
“Bruce Pennington at one year of age. Picture by “Polyfoto”, London W1, 1945.”
“The frozen smile gives it away,immediately. A ghastly school-days photo around 1948 when I was fourteen at Bromley Tech for Boys. Somehow I survived it all.”
My first day at school was utterly traumatic to put it mildly, with enough horror stories to fill a small book. Lunch time meals were vomit-inducing, whilst the afternoon lessons (held in a long, dark, creosoted shed) brought me to the very brink of despair. As the entire class were trying to make sense of the nasty little Scottie dog reading books, a small boy at the back of the room was quietly weeping. When the teacher asked me why I was crying, I replied quite candidly that I just wanted to go home. I’d simply had enough!
However, with the gradual process of making new friends, and finding that the teachers weren’t so bad after all, I half-accepted the new regime that had initially seemed so daunting. Along with this acceptance came my discovery of certain talents that I was unaware of within me. These included reading aloud, writing, acting, singing and eventually, painting and drawing.
The latter took some time to fully develop from my initial hopeless efforts which were utterly discouraging. I can clearly recall the amorphous mud-colored water paintings that I first produced, leaving me cringing in shame when they were propped up alongside the other pupils’ works which were considerably superior to my own. There is a saying in artistic circles that most of the great works of art consist of one percent inspiration and 99% technique. To a certain extent I can assent to this rather simplistic statement, especially as my early transformation From “slime-dauber” to competent young artist was largely due to my own personal discoveryof a very useful formula, process, method, or “technique”.
“With my dearest best friend, Mum. Circa 2000.
Photo by Mike Busselle.”
The sheer horror of what was happening was
eventually defused by someone with an obvious
sense of humour calling out-
“We’re all doomed!”
Location- outside Bromley Tech for boys enroute for home
The holidays were predictably enjoyable, ripening into early autumn when my enthusiasm to start at art school was rising to fever pitch - like an arrow pulled tight against a bowstring and longing to go free. Then, in the first week of September it was “chocks away” and I was off!
The weather on that day was perfect. Unlike my dress sense - pea green tweed jacket with mismatched turquoise tie and white shirt. The trousers were either historical or hysterical (or both) very baggy in flannel grey with turnips! Hardly an auspicious start.
Not to worry, because the living tableau that awaited me on my arrival at the art school’s entrance was worthy of a painting in itself. It glorified that very ingredient that had been so lamentably lacking during my wretchedly unhappy years at both the boys schools, and was now being paraded before me in all its blossoming beauty. Yes, it was girls galore in all their delectable diversity. But these young ladies weren’t remotely dressed like art students, they looked more like applicants for secretarial positions. Incredibly neat and smart, some even wore twin-sets and pearls! The guys were equally pedestrian, resembling junior bank managers or estate agents with their suits, or two-tone casuals and ties. I blended in with them perfectly. Yet within a few days we’d all got the message from the older students and soon slouched into floppy sweaters and jeans. And as for my greased-back brylcream coated hair (avec D.A. and Tony Curtis frontal scroll) it all dried out almost instantly into a fluffy ragged mane.
To describe arriving at Beckenham School of Art at that time was- to quote an ex-pupil- “like coming to heaven.” It exuded warmth, peace, friendliness and creativity- not surprisingly its number of passes to the Royal College of Art remains legendary- the highest anywhere in the world!
The whole atmosphere was one of “do your own thing” some six years before the hippies made it globally popular and “cool.” The immediate environment was also conducive to “good vibes” in various other ways- the library for study; the public baths and their cafe for swimming and sustenance; and the church opposite for sanctity.
Though to me at least, the Art School itself provided that in the form of the fifth s, self-expression, which I’ve always had an almost reverential respect for like many other students there. My two years spent there were absolutely idyllic, The months leading up to Christmas 1960 had been magical. Never before had I been surrounded by so many wonderfully inspiring influences all at once- it were as if I had suddenly stumbled into the meadows of Elysium itself and wanted to stay. Here at last I had found a place where imaginative creativity was almost worshipped day and night, to the extent that many students were loath to go home in the evenings- they were devoted to their projects. The term “work” was never used- instead it was “exploratory self-discovery,” “Creative exploration,” or simply “having a ball” with free materials on a government grant!
“How vain can you get! A complete break from art school in Autumn 1964. ‘Mod Style’ for a film poster artist.”
This all began to formulate itself around a careful analysis of my favourite reading material at that time (when I was about six) - cartoon comics. The more their basic characters were studied in detail, the more convinced I became that I could actually replicate some of them using simple coloured crayons. It worked!
My first success came with a popular character in a weekly cartoon comic whose principal features were simple enough to copy. I always began with his ovoid glossy black nose and gradually worked my way outwards to his other features- strangely in the same order that the ancients (and certain occultists of today) applied to the five sense. So, starting with the nose for scent, mouth for taste, eyes for sight etc. I found it easier each time I did it.
Such a development and all the favourable comments it attracted, gave me enormous confidence to find similar techniques in my hitherto hopeless painting efforts. Although less immediate in success, these too gradually improved with time and dedication until I was able to show off one or two works of a quality almost equal to my crayon drawings. That’s really when I became hooked on art itself above all the other subjects at school.
School was definitely “out for summer and forever!” That blissful realisation elevated my whole being- years before the same words were cut into vinyl by Alice Cooper. As I made my way home that same evening, after a celebratory meal in Bromley with friends, I was borne along by a surge of real freedom at last.
Freedom from a male-oriented regime that had been enforced by regular use of the cane, slipper, detention, or the punitive writing of lines- not to mention the inevitable bullying and compulsory sports education. The most memorable moment of that fragrant, duck-enchanted journey for me was after I’d disembarked from the train and was going past some local shops near home when suddenly out of one of their upper windows there wafted such a beautiful piece of music that I immediately recognised.
It was the sumptuous “theme from a summer place”- that very same symphonic melody that I’d so adored when it had peaked in the charts only a few months earlier. It was lilting and lush, evoking exactly the right mood for the way I felt at that moment- exalted! From then on, a marvellous vista of infinite possibilities seemed to open up before me, not just those “hazy lazy crazy days” of the soon-to-be-enjoyed summer holidays, but the exciting thought of my subsequent first taste of Art College in September- and beyond. Little did I realise it at the time though the very same moment was also the very gateway to the Sixties themselves, when “The Summer of My Life” was about to begin
During that first term I quickly lost my old affiliations with all things linked to 1950s America. Elvis was an early casualty. Despite his return from the Army with his album, Elvis Is Back! I was convinced he wasn’t anything of the sort. Many were even positive he had been abducted and replaced by a more family-friendly clone or replica! With a record sleeve picture about as rebellious as an old knitting pattern - that also smelled distinctly similar to embalming fluid - the evidence was stacking up in their favour. To be serious, my last tribute to him was in the form of a large poster-sized painting copied from a well-known postcard as he looked prior to his army years.
That was done in the holiday before I started at Beckenham. It’s a relic in itself that I still have. However, one lasting survivor from my old school days was my long-time erotic obsession the “sex kitten” herself- Brigitte Bardot! I’d initially rescued her from our kitchen floor where she was being used to soak up the freshly washed lino tiles in the form of a newspaper photograph of her naked, clutching only a mere towel. I was intrigued; especially as only her back and long blonde tresses were shown in the picture. From then on I sought out every available article and photo of her. Never being disappointed as each one convinced she was (and still is) unique. Furthermore, she encapsulated all that was artistic and French, which made her a real icon at Art School and in the Sixties generally. Needless to say, I did numerous pictures of her.
I’ve often been asked about what and who most influenced my work whilst at Art School. Regarding established artists both past and present at the time, my favourite was initially Toulouse Lautrec, followed later by Vuillard, Braque, and many of the impressionists - nearly all were French.
In a way, both teachers were an essential downside to counter-act an otherwise blissfully happy two years at Beckenham before its merger with Bromley Art School at the newly built Ravensbourne College of Art and Design in September 1962.
My first impression of the building was that it looked very like a huge ocean-liner that had run around in some farmer’s field. It was ugly, yet impressive, with even its own entertainment hall and spacious restaurant. The absolute opposite in fact of our beloved little old “bungalow” at Beckenham. The saddest aspect of the transition was that so many of our favourite friends and teachers never made the transfer. Either because they failed the intermediate exam, or in the case of the teachers, they simply dropped out.
At this stage, my sister, Jill, began her first term of the college believing it would be just as enjoyable as Beckenham has been for me. How wrong can you be! Within a few weeks, the new style curriculum left poor Jill totally disenchanted. It was anything but inspiring. Packed with subjects not remotely connected with creative art, plus stricter rules and regulations, it was only a matter of days before my sister “threw it in” for a far more stimulating job as a vetinary assistant, nearer home.
As well as the students’ graffiti all over the painting room’s walls (to add a little soul to the synthetic sterility of the new place), the writing was already on the wall in another sense. Most of my favourite teachers had decided not to be part of the new educational system, so in this case standards suffered as a consequence. Instead, there were so many new additions to our timetable of a rather irritating kind. Too many dreary lectures and essays which distracted from the main thrust of “self expression” did nothing to stimulate my own view of the new college.
However, with plenty of free oil-paints and canvasses to get busy with, I wasn’t totally miserable, especially as I did so much work at home anyway. My favourite art had shifted by then from the French 19th Century masters to the new “whizz kids” of “Pop Art.” I was producing a fair amount of my work in the form of lithographs in the new premises, large print rooms, so gradually I was getting to grips with the place at last. With the new system cam new perks, including regular visits up to the London museums and art galleries by free coach trips. This all began around 1963, the year after the cold war climax known as The Cuban Missile Crisis when some students were openly claiming to have possession of suicide pills” in case of a possible nuclear war.
“Between two birds of a different kind of feather. An egret on the left, ‘Brigette’ on the right- my all time favourite actress.
Towards the end of my last term at Ravensbourne, I went with several other students for an interview at the Kent Education Committee’s offices in Maidstone with a view to getting a job as an art teacher at one of their schools. Whilst lauding the qualities of such a job, the interviewer denigrated the alternative prospect of ending up in some “shady little back street agency” instead.
Needless to say, that idea immediately appealed to my growing fascination with all that was diametrically opposed to artistic refinement and good taste, so I soon pondered over how I could possibly get into such a “den of iniquity.” I wouldn’t have long to wait. After I’d left Ravensbourne I had no idea of what kind offer I’d take up - except one connected with art of course.
I’d written to several companies, including Hammer Films in the hope of being a make-up artist, but their studios were all closed, and I would need to join a union first anyway. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, a phone call came in early September from an ex Art School friend who had found a job as paste-up artist in a London Ad-Agency studio. He wondered if I’d ever entertained the idea of being a film-poster artist because his boss was looking for one. This was even better than I’d hoped for in the realm of screen entertainment.
After an initial rather hesitant conversation with his employer over the phone, I rang back later to say I’d accept his invitation for an interview before the weekend. The studio was in Turnmill Street near Farringdon tube station at the edge of Smithfield Meat Market - it was more like “Turmoil Street.” The whole area had a dusty, rather run-down atmosphere to it, very evocative of Dickensian London, with just a hint of old Calcutta there as well, being so near to the meat market’s bustle and clamour. There was a great amount of activity at the T-junction where the studio was, including regular visits by “find the lady” practitioners - recalling the “shady” tag that the interviewer had warned me of just a few weeks previously. I liked that aspect of it though, as it was so far removed from the sterile sanctity of Art School with all its warnings against the profanity of commercialism and artistic degradation. I immediately warmed to the place and its people; that’s possibly why the interview went so well. The boss, an Ed Asner lookalike with a Burt Reynolds moustache seemed impressed by what was in my portfolio and soon discussed a wage in the materials store-room. Then, after a few minutes, with a broad smile and handshake he declared, “You’re in business, man!”
“From then on I was smitten by the whole glamour
of mass-produced duplications of my own work
and revelled in the excitement of reaching literally
millions of people throughout the world.
The fact that my art-teachers would have been
appalled at what I was doing only amplified the
pleasure that it gave me.”
“The same kind of fatuous posturing continued
through 1965, Only the cigarettes are real in
these photos, the rest is phony.”
For several months I’d so wanted to slam the brakes on my fine-art career and go into complete reverse. With that single agreement (amidst the shelves of art board and paper) I felt I’d effectively done that at last. However, during the following weekend prior to my first week there, I had a disturbing dream about the previous Friday’s events; waking up in a panic and cold sweat, wondering if I’d committed some dreadful Faustian error. As it turned out, the only mistake was in taking the tube train to get from Holborn to Farringdon when I could easily have walked it, saving both time and money. That was soon put right in the first week though.
I liked everyone at the studio, where I soon learned that the boss had flown Lancasters in the war, whilst his deputy actually owned a Spitfire: the wingless version made by the Triumph Motor Company; ideal for pulling the “dolly birds” so abundant in 1960s Swinging London, fast becoming “the city of the decade.” I mustn’t forget the two principal paste-up artists “Bonnie and Mr Barrow,” who made me feel that at last - in names at least - I was well and truly “in with the outlaws.”
I’ll never forget the sheer adrenal charge of holding a large full-colour reproduction of my own work for the very first time. It was a huge international film-poster, hot off the press for the epic movie Kaliyug, Goddess of Vengeance, vastly bigger than my original artwork and teeming with orgiastic action throughout. It was an exhilarating experience to suddenly step onto the world stage of cinematic promotion with such a piece of work that can only be described as “Delacroix on acid” and soar above the tiny parochial concept of a one man exhibition somewhere that can only be attended by a modest number of visitors anyway.
From then on I was smitten by the whole glamour of mass-produced duplications of my own work and revelled in the excitement of reaching literally millions of people throughout the world. The fact that my art-teachers would have been appalled at what I was doing only amplified the pleasure that it gave me.
And what fabulous “sinful” colours! I had somehow been oblivious to them at Art School, or rather “shielded from” more likely, through some kind of censorship. Generally referred to as industrial colours through their use in the printing industry, they blazed forth in such searing audacity that I soon became addicted to their intoxicating splendour. Years later I continued to use them in many of my SF book-cover illustrations. Bengal Rose and Cyprus Green being two of my particular favourites.
“A week’s sketching holiday in Paris where I decided to quit my
new job at Jupiter Studios, Soho. 21 to 28 August 1966.”
In the summer of the following year, 1965, the studio moved from the Smithfield Area to Covent Garden (a transition that was predictive of my own evolution two decades later exactly, from meat-oriented omnivore to vegetarian). With the change came a shift in priorities. From the exotic vibrancy of film company’s posters, the emphasis was more on their monochromatic press adverts which soon resulted in me developing all the signs of “chromatic starvation.” However, I remained there until the following year, still producing the occasional colour poster but at the same time building up a significant portfolio of private works in my spare time.
It was a sad day in late July 1966 when I broke the news to my boss of nearly two years that I’d found another job. I’d learned so much and enjoyed doing so whilst working for his company, but I think he understood my youthful inclination to move on to pastures new and other horizons. We remained good friends I’m pleased to say.
THE BRUCE PENNINGTON ARCHIVE
THE BRUCE PENNINGTON ARCHIVE
In the winter of 1967 a twenty-one year old Bruce Pennington received an urgent telegram from the paperbook house New English Library asking the budding commercial artist to contact them about a book cover commission.
Pennington had been freelancing on a variety of paperbacks including historical romances and westerns, but this one was different. It was for a science fiction book called Dune and the iconic cover Pennington produced transformed him from a budding career artist into the UK's leading fantasy illustrator of the time.
Dune is now considered a classic of the genre and a masterpiece of author Frank Herbert, but there’s no doubting that Pennington’s artwork played a huge role in its success. His vivid and mysterious renderings of life on Dune created an instantly recognisable identity for this immensely popular series of books. Glowing with surrealistic colours of deep purple, rich blue and sumptuous green, Pennington’s paintings displayed a mysterious symmetry, hinting at hidden meanings and arcane knowledge that could only be decoded with the aid of hours of intense study and Mexican peyote.
1963 was a memorable relief to all that tension in so many ways. Whilst the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 was the cork that popped open “the Sixties bottle” in Britain, it was the Profumo Scandal three years later that poured it all out in great quantities. “It” being permissiveness itself in the form of salacious accounts in the press of how the rich and poor were “getting it on” earlier in the decade. Except this time the girls were working class and men were the aristocrats.
It’s a sad irony that those who were victimised at the time by the courts and press would have been seen as harmless happy “swingers” a few years later when the “free love” generation of the hippies got going. This is how rapidly the times were “a-changing” -reflected in the Dylan song of that period.
I was hard at work tackling even bigger oil paintings; one such work had been started after I’d returned to college following an absence due to a nasty bout of flu. It was a “larger-than life” sized self-portrait in oil paint on a sheet of rough un-primed hardboard, just right to re-assert my own self-confidence after a long convalescence. Friends agreed, it was a very strong “come-back” piece of work.
Perhaps the very last recollection I have of Ravensbourne itself is thanks to “Danny”, an avid Rolling Stones fan at the time of their initial success in the charts as anti-heroes to the mohair mop-topped good-guys like The Beatles. Danny had created a massive square-shaped monstrosity in wood and various other materials that he had named Babylon the Mighty.
To witness the completion of this great work, he invited all and sundry from the college’s other departments for a unique experience- namely The Fall of Babylon. When they had duly arrived he chanted some mystical incantation before suddenly setting the entire work alight. All went well for several minutes until the smoke became quite thick and toxic in its smell. So bad had it become that some people left, bumping into none other than the principal himself, who was on his way up the stairs to investigate. When he arrived at the scene Danny rudely pushed him back- oblivious of who he was- shouting “Get back, this is the grand finale.”
Then with as demonic flourish he hurled some ungodly substance from a jar onto the sizzling ruin whereby the whole abomination exploded with a colossal eruption of flames, molten particles of pitch and even more smoke. It was volcanic in magnitude, sending is all fleeing in different directions whilst screaming and cursing the sheer stupidity of what he’d done. Teachers tried to keep it all under control by calling out, “Don’t panic, leave by the stairs,” and “don’t breathe it in,” as the entire floor was engulfed in a poisonous black smog.
The sheer horror of what was happening was eventually defused by someone with an obvious sense of humour calling out- “We’re all doomed!”
Soon afterwards most of us were out of the building looking up at the belching bitumous smoke pouring out of the art department’s windows. Later, as I made my way to the bus stop I looked back at it all from a distance. It still looked like some kind of oceangoing ship, but one in danger of sinking.
“Circa 1963. A scruffy art student at Ravensbourne.”
Portrait of a Master Fantasy Artist