Classic Science-Fiction Illustrators (Part 4) – Peter Elson
Elson’s artistic potential was evident at early age, beginning to draw as soon as he could hold a pencil. Something of a prodigy, he completed his Art A-Level two years early at age 16 (A-Grade, of course). Whilst at Ealing Art College he studied fashion before switching to graphics. His career in Sci-Fi illustration took off in 1977 when he entered and won a Sci-Fi artwork competition. Commissions began to flood in and a star was born.
Above: ‘The Best Of A E Van Gogt Vol 2’ (Book Cover)
Elson’s career mirrors the chronology of the Golden Age; prolific through the 70s and 80s, still important in the 90s, and gliding out of fashion with the onset of the initial wave of do-it-yourself 3D computer generated images – all of which look horrifically dated today I might add. While schlocky CGI is relegated to the scrap heap of history, Elson’s work continues to be celebrated.
Above: ‘The Outpost’ (Book Cover)
Why was Elson so fantastically important? Well, simply put, versatility and his unmatched level of quality control. Science Fiction illustration can easily veer into cliche. Elson’s work evinces a future where tremendous energies are harnessed while retaining an intimate sense of the people that inhabit it.
Not all Sci-Fi artists get the future right; perhaps a futuristic vision centered on a piece of newly mundane technology. A forgivable blunder when envisioning the future, but you’ll find very little of this as you scrub through Elson’s extensive portfolio.
Above: ‘The Rim of Space’ (Book Cover – Bertram A. Chandler)
Equally adept at designing space hardware, planetscapes, characters or costumes Elson is without doubt one of the true timeless Sci-Fi artists.
The image above perfectly encapsulates all of his talents. It reflects not just his raw ability and imagination but also his background in fashion and graphics. His design lexicon and spaceship liveries set a benchmark only matched by Chris Foss (heavy foreshadowing). This may be the third time I’ve posted this image; evidently I’ll never grow tired of it.
Above: ‘Alshain Derelict’
This astonishingly detailed space wreck serves as another demonstration of the power Elson’s creative mind. A real joy for the eye to peruse over, it is laced with layers of mystique. The desert setting commands my attention, a wide open vista whose harsh beauty is littered with mysterious debris. It’s one of his best.
Above: ‘The Stainless Steel Rats Revenge’ (Book Cover – Harry Harrison)
Another of my perennial favorites, I never tire of this gem. In particular I love the costume design details, his and hers, as well as the meticulous detail found on the helmet. Elson produced the cover art for all of the Stainless Steel Rat novels, a testament to his visual interpretation of Harrison’s work.
Top: ‘Star Watchmen’ (Book Cover – Ben Bova)
Middle: ‘Pebble in the Sky’ (Book Cover – Isaac Asimov)
Above: ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ (Book Cover – Ed McBain)
As with most of his British contemporaries Elson produced book cover art for many of the Sci-Fi greats; the Asimov, Bova and Harrison covers above are just a brief survey of his output.
Tragically Elson’s career was cut far too short. Whilst working on a mural, he was relaxing in a hotel bar with colleagues when he suffered a heart attack. He passed away aged just 51.
His legacy lives on today, in many ways brighter than ever. Echoes of his many beautiful Terran Trade Authority creations are abundant in today’s video games with the Homeworld franchise being perhaps the most notable example.
Peter Elson (13 January 1947 – March 1998)
Read more about Elson and view his superb portfolio by visiting his official site. Established by his sister, it features an excellent biography, a touching tribute from Elson’s agent and friend Carol Butfoy and, of course, a staggeringly beautiful gallery of his collected works. You can order prints of Elson’s work there also; all Sci-Fi oriented game studios need at least one of his framed ship designs.
You can track Elson news via his official Facebook page.
Header image: ‘Divergence’ (Cover for Charles Sheffield, 1991).
Next up in the classic Sci-Fi illustrator series is the unmistakable master of hulking space hardware, Chris Foss.