The Illustrated Man
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.