By Pat Hornsey
Bruce Pennington. Born 10 May 1944. Studied: Beckenham School of Art, 1960-64. Sf artist; creator of such sf paperback covers as Brian Aldiss' Airs of Earth (New English Library Edition, August 1972), Poul Anderson's Satan's World (Corgi Edition, April 1973), Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah (New English Library Edition, September 1972) and The Green Brain (New English Library Edition, July 1973).
Science fiction cover illustration is fast becoming an art form in itself, and one of the leading exponents in this field is Bruce Pennington, whose work over the past three years has developed a following of its own.
Pennington has been working on sf covers for six years now. His introduction to the world of science fiction came in 1967 when he was commissioned by New English Library to illustrate their paperback edition of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
Bruce Pennington's first science fiction cover, for Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, published by New English Library in 1967.
At that time he had no particular interest in science fiction and continued illustrating what he terms 'dreary historical novels and westerns' for another year before producing a series of striking illustrations for a collection of Ray Bradbury paperbacks published by Corgi. Notable among these were Dandelion Wine, Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Soon after, he created cover illustrations for The Airs of Earth, The Canopy of Time, Space, Time and Nathaniel and The Dark Light Years, a quartet of stories by Brian Aldiss reissued by New English Library in May 1971. It was these covers which
established him as an essentially sf artist and from then on his work began to develop a refinement of style quite unique in paperback cover art.
THE CANOPY OF TIME, one of the covers which established Pennington as an essentially sf artist.
The covers of paperbacks such as The Pastel City, Indoctrinaire (both New English Library) and The Year's Best Science Fiction No 6 (Sphere) are typical examples of his current style.
Today there is growing interest in his work and he receives fan mail from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
"I get all kinds of letters. Some simply ask for larger reproductions of my paintings but others are quite lengthy and interesting - people are interested to know how their interpretation of the cover corresponds with mine."
Pennington's work has a very distinctive quality about it. His use of colour alone sets him apart from other science fiction artists. Most of his paintings are done in the same medium: gouache colour is applied to stretched watercolour paper and as the work progresses a variety of inks and varnishes are incorporated to add luminosity and depth. An illustration is generally conceived as a rough patchwork of colours and tones and gradually becomes resolved and clarified towards the end - a simple analogy would be that of a blurred image viewed through a distorted lens which, as the lens is adjusted, gradually brings the subject into focus.
Science fiction illustration is, he finds, an excellent vehicle for expressing his imaginative ideas and there is no doubt that, given complete license, he would give full rein to his obsession with the bizarre and supernatural:
"For many years now, I have become increasingly interested in all kinds of phenomena - religious apparitions, miracles, aerial prodigies, UFOs - in fact most things which defy rational explanation. All these are to be found in the one book which most inspires me - the Bible. When read in the context of the Centuries of Nostrodamus and the much later books of Charles Fort, the Old and New Testaments took on a new dimension for me. Although I am not overtly religious, the accurate fulfilment of past prophecies has made me re-examine the Bible in a new light. I discount the clumsy theories of popular writers who suggest that angels are astronauts from other worlds. I believe them to be beings of a much higher order than mere technologically advanced humans".
Pennington's own private drawings and paintings abound with the visions which haunt him, particularly that of the Apocalypse. Armoured devils swarm out of sulphurous smoke clouds; echelons of flying saucers streak across the horizon leaving hellfire and desolation in their wake; fiery beings climb city walls like supermen carrying the 'elect' to safety as the earth blazes like an inferno.
Paintings such as these are just some in his Armageddon series. Similar visions creep into his some of his sf illustrations (typical examples being those for the covers of Earthworks, New Worlds 6 and The Green Brain) and he finds this is something he must guard against for fear of misinterpreting a book.
Typical example of Pennington's style: cover illustration for Frank Herbert's THE GREEN BRAIN
"There are so many artists I admire - Turner, John Martin, Fuseli, Richard Dadd and, of course, William Blake. The so-called Great Artists leave me cold though. I am more influenced by modern photography and the startling effects it can produce."
Regarding his future, Pennington is non-committal. He would like more time to develop his own work on a much larger scale and feels that oils on canvas would be a more dynamic medium for the type of work he now hopes to produce. When asked how long he will continue to create covers for science fiction novels he simply says, "For as long as I have the time to do them."