Graphic circus

Alan Aldridge’s nonconformist approach to graphic art has influenced 1960s visual culture and secured his place in 1960s folklore. As his work again goes on
show, Adrian Shaughnessy introduces this ‘graphic entertainer’

ALAN ALDRIDGE was a quintessential 1960s figure: talented, working class, pop-star handsome, ambitious and a hustler. He can be seen alongside Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and Julie Christie in Peter Whitehead’s documentary of swinging 1960s life, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Not bad company for a self-taught illustrator.

Born in 1943 in London, Aldridge hobnobbed with The Beatles (he was the Fab Four’s ‘official design consultant’); designed album covers for The Who (A Quick One) and Cream (Goodbye); and created the poster for Andy Warhol’s movie Chelsea Girls, using artwork that had been rejected by The Beatles for The White Album, and which received both a D&AD Silver and a warrant for his arrest on pornography charges. Aldridge is later reported to have said: ‘This is Swinging London, and I’m being persecuted and hunted for a pair of nipples.’

A true 1960s working class hero, Aldridge left school at 14 to work as a docker. Later he was employed as an insurance clerk, a chicken plucker, a scene painter at The Old Vic and a barrow boy on Stratford Market. In his latest book, Alan Aldridge: The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, Aldridge describes working in a coffee bar in 1963: ‘It meant late nights – it was a shooting gallery for heroin addicts. After work I’d go to Bunjies on Litchfield Street. They had a wall covered in flyers. One, headed ‘Graphic Workshop’, advertised an eight-week evening course taught by Bob Gill, Romek Marber, Tony Palladino, Lou Klein, Germano Facetti, Marcello Minale and Brian Tattersfield, among others.’

Facetti, then art director at Penguin, offered Aldridge freelance work. Aldridge soon replaced Facetti as art director of Penguin and introduced a tumult of graphic anarchy into the venerable publisher’s book jackets. Nudity, psychedelic surrealism and the abandonment of house style characterised Aldridge’s period at Penguin. But his tenure ended with the sack, and David Pelham, his successor, described Penguin’s covers under Aldridge as ‘quite frankly, a mess’.

In 1969, Aldridge had the first of many publishing successes. His Beatles Illustrated Lyrics was published in two volumes in 1969 and 1970, and featured the cream of contemporary artistic talent – Ronald Searle, Tomi Ungerer, Peter Max, David Hockney and Ralph Steadman, among them. Thanks to Aldridge’s instinct for the visual zeitgeist and his entrepreneurial flair, both volumes sold prodigiously. Aldridge succeeded in his first big publishing venture through sheer chutzpah.

In the post-psychedelic burn-out phase of the early 1970s, Aldridge was to score an even greater publishing triumph. As he told Eye magazine in a 2005 interview: ‘I’d had enough. Swinging London wasn’t swinging anymore. I bought a 30-room Georgian mansion where I could sit and draw. I did a children’s book influenced by an 1806 book of poems called The Butterfly’s Ball.’ Published In 1973, The Butterfly Ball & The Grasshopper’s Feast sold over a million copies worldwide.

In 1974, Aldridge produced the cover illustration for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. One writer has described it as a ‘Boschian smorgasbord, complete with Elton flying on his piano’. Aldridge proposed an animated film based on the cover and took the idea to Hollywood, where Elton’s fame guaranteed interest. But after the pop star announced his bisexuality in the American press, studio bosses dropped the project. Aldridge, however, had caught the Hollywood bug, and in 1980 he moved to Los Angeles, where he has remained ever since, developing new characters, scripts and books.

At the height of Aldridge’s fame in 1975, John Betjeman wrote: ‘No one comes close to matching [Aldridge’s] influence on illustration in the 20th Century.’ Aldridge’s work from his most fertile period is deliciously nostalgic, and for a young generation it has a hint of maverick derangement. There’s a saccharine quality to it that dates it – it’s no accident that today ‘airbrush’ is often used as a pejorative term. And yet, his energy and bravado are not in question. He has called himself a ‘graphic entertainer’ and that is what he remains.

Alan Aldridge: The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 from 10 October until 25 January 2009

Latest articles