The Illustrated Man

The Arts

It was rather like a smart wake. I had missed the news of the illustrator Vic Fair’s passing some while back, so this week I attended an exhibition of his work, held in Lauderdale House, a Tudor mansion built in 1582, visited by Charles II and lived in by Nell Gwynn, set in Waterlow Park, Highgate. Many of his old friends had gathered there – none of us had seen his work en masse in decades.

Vic was an illustrator, one of an already vanishing breed when he started. Everyone in London knew how to find out about the latest films coming their way; all they had to do was walk down Wardour Street in Soho and look in the windows. Every major film company was there and on their ground floors they had dioramas, often elaborate, displaying their wares. In the centre of each one would be a film poster surrounded by stills and sometimes props and paper sculptures.

Years later I walked down the street past the Rank Film Organisation and saw original artworks being emptied out from their basement into dustcarts. Several decades of astonishing art, smashed up and dumped without a second glance. Now there’s an art market that recognises how rare and beautiful these hand-painted pieces were.

Nobody placed much value on poster design then; it was required because British film posters were bespoke due to their odd size; the quad shape fitted in spaces beneath shop windows. Paradoxically, it was this lack of interest in poster art that allowed Vic to produce his most memorable pieces, because he was free to come up with his own ideas without much interference.

I was writing poster straplines at this time. They would be added to the artwork, which was roughed out in pencils and inks and Magic Markers and then taken a couple of doors up Wardour Street to Rank Films, who approved them seemingly on a whim.

The clients were, largely, former salesmen who had wound up in the wrong job. For the most part they had no aesthetic sense and very little taste. I often wondered what they thought of Vic, this soft-spoken gentle giant who patiently presented his work (no middle managers for us; we took work directly to the client, acting it out if necessary) and listened to their frequently inane comments, seeking a way of preserving his idea while satisfying their requirements.

The four artists of Downton Advertising were all characters. The offices were calm, louche and filled with cigar smoke. There was an atmosphere of maverick invention in this agency-cum-toyshop. Ideas were chucked around, models constructed, sketches scribbled out and discarded. On the desk of Vic’s private office was a WW1 soldier’s helmet which had been hand-painted and photographed for the poster of ‘How I Won the War’. It was now being used as a pen tray. There were posters for ‘Performance’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, drawn in a distinctive, instantly recognisable style.

But our clients’ only real concern was money. How could the art be made cheaper? Rank suggested going with the original roughs rather than running to the cost of finishing them off, which is why posters for ‘Countess Dracula’ and ‘Vampire Circus’ have such a raw, bright feel. Many were simply Magic Marker roughs printed up to save a bob or two. Ideas bothered the Rank Film Organisation, and Vic was full of ideas. The problem was that he intellectually outclassed them.

Actually he outclassed us all in every possible way, and I suspect it was only because they recognised this that he got away with as much as he did (he often hid skulls in his designs and you can spot the, ahem, gentlemen’s parts on the ‘Vampire Circus’ poster along with his outrageous reworking of Klimt featuring Greta Scaatchi juxtaposed with Art Garfunkel’s mouth on the poster for Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Bad Timing’).

Selling ideas is hard work. I remember one particularly disastrous meeting with Terry Gilliam’s team of Hollywood execs where we presented a poster idea of Vic’s that was simply genius. ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ is about an adventurer who is a showman and fantasist. Vic’s original chiaroscuro artwork show Munchausen on a low-lit stage bowing to his audience. The curtain behind him is colourfully painted with his fantastical exploits, but as Munchausen bows deep, his sword scabbard has lifted a corner of the curtain to reveal behind it a sham of rickety props.

It was an appealing idea rendered beautifully that encapsulated the theme of the film, but the suits in the room simply didn’t understand it and we were sent packing. The bowing figure survives on the finished piece, but without the original idea. It was part of the grand game; for every ten clever ideas perhaps only one or two would receive a flicker of interest, usually the least appealing ones, so we got in the habit of weeding out the more crass images, the ones we knew they’d like most (usually because they had some nudity) before presenting the range of ideas.

What lifted Vic above his peers was his ability to pinpoint the films’ central theme and find a way of visualising it with effortless ease and flair. His work exhibits a rare design intelligence that remains unique, identifiable, and timeless. Commercial artworks such as these have largely disappeared now, replaced by comped-together shots massaged online and approved by committees. The American studios routinely altered European art so that they could claim copyright and pocket the earnings. This meant that most film artists remained invisible and unknown. They were on salaries or paid freelance and hardly ever kept their own work.

Now that illustration has all but vanished, their work is finally valued.

15 comments on “The Illustrated Man”

  1. Christine says:

    Time to publish a poster book with your straplines. I wonder were they always translated by foreign countries?

  2. admin says:

    No, most territories did their own unless they had no ad/pub budget.

  3. Roger says:

    Theresa Russell is the lead in “Bad Timing”.

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    I often told my students to study movie posters as a prelude to producing better powerpoint slides for presentations. Good posters give a good deal of information; tell the story, set the atmosphere, in one take with minimal words. And although you can find “extras” in them if you look at them for a time, you don’t need to; the story is there immediately.

  5. Bronwen Rowlands says:

    This is fascinating; thank you.

  6. Brooke says:

    Top photo is fascinating– folds in coat create what (on small screen) looks like a viper evolving into a flame, with suggestion of feminine emerging to dominate left side. In contrast to very male image on right–smoke/gun? Wonder what images an enlarged version would evoke? Source?

    gives insight into why B&M covers receive such attention.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    French and Italian movie posters are usually excellent. Mexican ones are often hilarious.

    So much design lost now that its just a still from the movie with text.

    Look at Robert McGuinness’ work on the Bond movies – sheer magic

  8. admin says:

    Thanks Roger – you can see my thinking!
    Brooke, I try to be hands-on with the book covers but have no control over some. My own favourite covers outside the Bryant & Mays are the ones from Solaris – you can tell they had an in-house studio. I commissioned the cover for ‘Hell Train’ from Graham Humphries.

  9. admin says:

    Peter, the one original poster I own is McGuinness’s ‘You Only Live Twice’ (see columns passim).

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Given the explanation here it is hilarious to see the posters turn up on the Antiques Roadshow with “Found them with rubbish in an alley” or “they said I could take any I wanted as they were going into the garbage anyway” and the valuer oohing at the “lovely work” and “too bad someone spilled coffee on the corner.”

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    Wonderful art. Way better than some of the London art installations of a few days ago.

    We all seem to find things in Baron Munchausen’s adventures.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    Some of the Eastern European posters bear no link to the films, I have a book of a number of them somewhere.

    The Nyctophobia light bulb is splendid.

    Every so often you’ll get a poster that wows (Suspiria had a great poster but they have brought out a new improved ones, oh dear.) but most now are just photo shopped from the film. Ad Astra is probably the best of the current crop and it does jump out that much, more of it’s different.

    Wayne.

  13. Peter Dixon says:

    Well done Admin, hope its in a huge frame in your living room – a classic. The man’s book covers are superb.

    Wayne – Ad Astra, probably the worst piece of SF movie making for a decade. No individual part of the story works. I’m pretty sure the idea of a wrinkly old bloke sending rays to destroy the Earth was covered by Flash Gordon. Thunderbirds Are Go was more realistic. Especially the acting.

    You’re probably right about the poster.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I used to have a lot of movie posters – the projectionist in our sadly long departed ABC Cinema used to sell them for between 30 and 80 pence each – in the mid 1970’s, that’s where my school lunch money went. I also have some Lobby Cards – usually in sets of 6, 8, or 10. The only movie posters I own now, are ‘Forbidden Planet’, and ‘The Wicker Man’. There were cupboards full of the things, which probably got slung in a skip. Heattbteaking thought. Wish I’d kept more.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The sets of Lobby cards I have, are:
    ‘Alien’
    ‘The Black Hole’
    ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’
    ‘Superman – The Movie’
    I also had a set for ‘Flash Gordon’, but I remember swapping them for some 7″ singles years ago.

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