The stunning SF illustrations of Peter Elson (1947-98)

A personal look at the incredible work of British SF artist

Like many children of the Seventies, I was heavily influenced and inspired in equal measure by the gargantuan star liners, intense space battles, and alluring alien worlds of sci-fi illustrators like Chris Moore, Bob Layzell, Colin Hay, Ralph McQuarrie, Angus McKie, Chris Foss and Peter Elson.

There was something about the sheer mass of their creations; lumbering through space, relentlessly shifting mysterious cargo to the far flung corners of the galaxy whilst battling the unwanted attentions of agile pirate cruisers.

You may have seen the sought-after Terran Trade Authority Handbooks published by Hamlyn in 1978-80, or the hardback Steven Caldwell Galactic Encounters series – all of which are highly recommended, and all contain examples of some of the greatest sci-fi illustrations ever created. Even now the colours are fresh, the dynamism of the images raw and powerful, sparking the imagination, and drawing you in.

For me, Peter Elson, born in 1947, an avid fan of Eagle magazine – dreamer, loner, genius – was one of the key members of that generation of visionaries who went on influence the look and tone of sci-fi films, television and books, from the late Seventies right up until the present day.

And yet most of you may have never heard of him.

You may be more familiar with his paintings though, most likely from the covers of well-thumbed SF novels by Patrick Moore, John Wyndham and Robert Heinlein, among countless others. Having won a SF art competition in 1977 Elson was suddenly the illustrator of the moment for pulp sci-fi novels.

I’m lucky enough to own one of Peter Elson’s original works, a classic piece and personal favourite, entitled Naked to the Stars. When it arrived, and as I removed it from its protective packaging for the first time, I was acutely aware that it was one of only a handful of times it had been seen by anyone other than the artist himself since he painted it in 1980: the year Blondie went Atomic.

I still get goose pimples looking at it now – a magnificent gleaming white space frigate bristling with antenna (or weapons) captured just as it is about to make the jump to hyperspace. Or at least that’s how I see it. And that’s the beauty of Elson’s work – your mind fills in the blanks, invents the back story, takes you to somewhere you didn’t expect. That’s the genius. That’s why it’s timeless.

It’s fair to say that spaceships of all shapes and sizes were Peter Elson’s forte, with over 75 examples in his portfolio – everything from 2001-style docking scenes, low-orbit dogfights, starship collisions and vast monoliths hanging in the heavens. A further browse of his online gallery reveals a penchant for stunning landscapes, futuristic cities, a quite spectacular War of the Worlds image, a plethora of mythical creatures, military aircraft and even some classic Dr Who and Stainless Steel Rat.

Sadly, Elson died in March 1998, largely a recluse, and with only a steady trickle of paid work, having not adapted his artistic techniques to modern technology. To the end he remained resolutely “old school”. He died as he lived, in a bar with a drink in his hand, at the far-too-young-an-age of 51. But his work is still as vivid and exciting today as it was 30 years ago, and I can’t help but feel what a tragedy it is that he never saw the impact he’s had on today’s illustrators, animators and filmmakers.

Elson’s sister, Pam, is now the custodian of his 300 paintings and his legacy. Pam never realised the cult following and popularity of her brother’s work while he was alive, and it was only after she looked up his name on the Internet in 2010, and subsequently spoke to SF fans, that she set up an online gallery and tribute site.

Through this site anyone can now purchase high quality prints, or even originals, of any of his paintings. I can think of no better tribute to the memory of Peter Elson, than his paintings adorning the walls of SF fans worldwide and being appreciated for many years to come.

Here’s to you, Peter Elson – may your stars never fade.

All images in this article © the estate of Peter Elson