In the 1970s I started to collect books on the art of science fiction and fantasy. I am now using my blog to review some of the beautiful imagery and tell the stories of these craftsmen from the days before computer-designed art – in the hope their work will find a new audience.
I bought the book Mythopoeikon by Patrick Woodroffe (Dragon’s World 1976) in the year it was published, when I was still at university. It is a soft-back book and the pages have been lovingly turned so often that I have now had to tie some of them back into the spine with white sewing cotton.
You can still find the book on Amazon and I would urge anyone interested in fantasy and sci-fi art to get a copy. Although maybe not one of the “new” copies priced at £75!
But for now I am concentrating on Mythopoeikon and a fascinating glimpse of the artist’s development in style and technique up to 1976.
Patrick Woodroffe was born in 1940 in Halifax, Yorkshire and in 1964 graduated In French and German at Leeds University. He started to exhibit his drawings in 1966 and gave up intermittent teaching in Cornwall to become a freelance illustrator in 1972.
He cites his early influences as Salvador Dali, the Viennese school of “fantastic realism” and above all the work of Dutch and Flemish so-called “primitives” of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
He says he suddenly realised that painting could achieve something photography could not, to reveal the world seen only within the mind.
And what a wonderful mind Woodroffe has.
Many of his favourite motifs are present even in the earliest pen and ink drawings he created while studying in France and then back at home in Falmouth. By this I mean all those forms from nature he seems to love – fish, snail, butterfly, flower and seed-pod, plus the female nude and the human skull. While Woodroffe worked, he was inspired by the music of Mahler and Bruckner.
In the early days Woodroffe also experimented with mixed media, combining flat painting in oils with tin tacks, copper wire, nails and glass beads made over a Bunsen burner. He was trying to make a new, more sumptuous setting in which to place his images.
At this stage as well as his favourite motifs from nature, he was using round, sun-disc faces.
Later, instead of using mixed media, he came to prefer “an even, regular surface on a painting; the illusion rather than the reality of three dimensions”.
Woodroffe used the Rapidograph pen enthusiastically for several years but then decided the evenness of line was not expressive enough and preferred “the swelling line of the traditional mapping pen or the subtle effects obtainable on an etching plate”.
In his oil paintings he was inspired by artist Richard Humphrey in London and aimed to emulate the wide and busy canvases of Hieronymus Bosch and express the oneness of nature, creating paintings that could be read like a book.
Soon after this Woodroffe had to teach full-time to support his young family and several imaginative book projects were rejected by publishers. He could not find work as an illustrator as only his own stories could match his unique style of illustration.
He finally succeeded with a first book for younger children, called Micky’s New Home. Micky is a hermit elephant…
During this time Woodroffe’s frequent symbolism of dolls in distress reflects the responsibilities of new fatherhood. This is one of my favourites from that time…
In 1972 Woodroffe retired from teaching to pursue a full-time artistic career and began with a successful exhibition at London’s Covent Garden Gallery. Then, more importantly, he was offered his first commission for a scifi book jacket Day Million by Frederik Pohl.
This was the start of a highly successful career designing book covers, although sometimes Woodroffe’s imagination went a bit too far as in his surreal and possibly inappropriate cover designs for Dashiell Hammett’s thrillers.
Woodroffe delights in inventing new animal species and hybrids or portraying mythical beasts such as dragons, and fortunately scifi book commissions usually gave him scope to play. Although he was clearly a little frustrated by the small scale and poor reproduction of paperback book covers and by the fact that the top of the picture had to leave “blank” space for the book title.
One early success was Woodroffe’s covers for the books of Michael Moorcock, for Quartet Books. Closer to fantasy than scifi, the tales suited Woodroffe’s organic imagery.
Woodroffe found it hard to treat space ships seriously – preferring to treat them as whimsical adaptations of insects and buildings. They appear Victorian, childlike, small and unconvincing.
Woodroffe is in his element, though, when illustrating humanoids and alien beasts and monsters.
It may be hard to believe in these days of little CDs, but in the 1970s, album sleeves for big long-playing vinyl records were considered an art form in themselves. King of this was Roger Dean, but Woodroffe also had success with some sleeves, notably for Budgie, Judas Priest and Greenslade.
Woodroffe is still tremendously creative and busy, as can be seen from his own website, where you can find information about recent books such as The Forget-Me-Not Gardener, Master of Fantasy and La Tour de Prisonnier.
It’s just a shame many of his pictures aren’t now available in book form – maybe it’s time someone produced a lavish “best of” Patrick Woodroffe book? Anyway, I wish him well and hope more people will discover his out-of-this-world work.