By Richard McKenna / October 31, 2016
It would be nice to say that Les Edwards needs no introduction, but it might be more accurate to say that he should need no introduction. Despite the vast influence his work has exerted upon science fiction, horror, and fantasy illustration over the last forty-odd years, he remains perhaps less well-known than he deserves outside the battlements of genre art. This is due in part to the prolific nature of his output—all of which upholds the same remarkable high quality, the same unmistakably refined style—as well as to his versatility and the fact that many of his illustrations and motifs have become so integrated into the popular imagination that they have transcended their original purpose as record sleeve covers or paperback covers or film posters. They have become art and archetype.
Les very graciously accepted our request to interview him, and proved to be self-effacing, generous, warm, as cultured as he is unpretentious, and possessed of a wry sense of humor. Sincerest thanks to him and his lovely wife Val for their kindness, hospitality, and patience. Please visit The Art of Les Edwards to see more of his work, to order prints, and to request information regarding commissions and licensing. All of the images used in this article are © Les Edwards, with all rights reserved by Mr. Edwards.
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MCKENNA: You’ve said that you were drawn to creepy things from a young age (giving the example of being more interested in Sly the Goblin than in Noddy when you were getting your bedtime story!), and you seem to have an innate grasp of how to frighten, unnerve, and engage the viewer. What do you think influenced you in terms of knowing how to create that imagery—and what frightens you (if anything)?
EDWARDS: I don’t really know the answer to that question. Obviously I’ve given it some thought, but I’m no closer to an answer than I was 40 years ago. You can’t really scare people with a painting. Maybe you can be a bit disturbing on a good day. I enjoy the idea that my pictures have some effect but, in the end, like all artists, I’m really painting for myself and trying to create images that I want to see. As to why I’m attracted to that sort of imagery, I have very little idea. It’s not really about fear but playing with an idea of fear. I think, at the root of it, is the feeling that the world is not the way we perceive it to be… but that’s straying a bit too far into armchair psychology. I had a lot of fun with scary stuff when I was a kid and I never grew out of it. I would still rather read a really good horror story than anything else, even though they seem harder to come by today.
MCKENNA: You’ve said that you love the paintings of Caspar David Freidrich, and sometimes in your work there seem to be nods towards Renaissance art, the Pre-Raphaelites, Atkinson Grimshaw, Tissot, John Singer Sargent, and even Norman Rockwell. Is there a particular period of art to which you feel an affinity?
EDWARDS: Like many of my contemporaries, I have a liking for Victorian art, although I still feel slightly guilty for saying so. When I was young the Victorians were dismissed as of no consequence. I think it was a time when figurative painting was brought to a very high level and that’s the attraction for me. I can forgive the sometimes mawkish sentimentality; it just seems quaint from this distance, and there’s a good deal of pomposity and self-regard in art of that period. But if you want to paint realistically, the Victorians are the people to look at. I hope no art critics are reading this.
MCKENNA: You were born in Walthamstow. Do you think that growing up in London informed your art, and what’s your relationship with your hometown now that you live on the coast?
EDWARDS: I did most of my growing up in East Ham so I’m certainly a Londoner at heart, but moving to the coast was one of the best things I ever did. I find London a bit crazy now, although that might just be my age. I’m not sure if being a Londoner affected my art but you do have easy access to some of the best art galleries in the world, and that’s bound to be influential.
MCKENNA: I know you’re often asked about attending Hornsey College of Art in what, politically and socially, was quite a vital moment. What are your memories of being there?
EDWARDS: The political stuff that was going on at Hornsey was really quite confusing. It had all started the previous term and I was dropped into the middle of it. There were a lot of very angry people about, both staff and students. It was impossible not to be caught up to some extent. It was 1968 and it really did seem as if the world was going to change. There was a lot of idealism about, which seems somewhat naïve from this distance. The college authorities mishandled things, but it became clear that there were people on both sides trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends. I remember one tutor urging us on to revolution in a completely hilarious, over the top way. He was quite serious though. The authorities threatened to close the college, but the trouble kept bubbling up every now and again until I left. Then Hornsey College was absorbed into Middlesex Poly so, in the end, they did close it down for all intents and purposes.
MCKENNA: You’ve mentioned that you weren’t encouraged in your wishes to become an illustrator. Was it because it wasn’t seen as a proper business? And was there a point when you realized that you’d made it?
EDWARDS: It was the strong belief among the college staff that illustration was just too difficult a career. Of course we students had no idea about the real world so I, at least, believed what I was told. I learned later that the head of the graphics department had tried his hand at illustration and had failed, so maybe that was the reason for the negative attitude. Whatever the reason, we all firmly believed that it was almost impossible to make a living as an illustrator. I don’t know who we thought was producing the lovely book jackets that were around. It wasn’t until I was told by the head of department that I couldn’t draw that I began to feel something was a bit odd and started to reassess my situation. In those days (before computers) graphic design was mostly about sticking down bits of paper, and I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. I didn’t decide there and then I wanted to be an illustrator, but I did know I wanted to make images somehow. The tutors were right that illustration is an insecure profession and consequently you can never feel that you’ve “made it,” as you always have the thought that it could all disappear tomorrow. I’ve seen lots of talented people fall by the wayside. You need an awful lot of luck.
MCKENNA: After leaving art school, you began working at the Young Artists Agency. How did that come about, and what kind of experience was it?
EDWARDS: John Spencer, who was running Young Artists from his home at the time, came to our end of year exhibition in 1972 searching for people who were interested in illustration. I was in the pub with a couple of others and he came to find us. He showed us some examples of the kind of book jacket work he was representing and asked if we were interested in doing that sort of thing. That was really when the penny dropped for me. I had no idea there were such things as illustrators’ agents and it was suddenly clear that there really were people making some sort of living at it. I thought I could do it, even though art school had dented my confidence quite a bit.
John became something of a mentor and guide for me as he did for many illustrators. Without him I wouldn’t have had a career. He was something of a renaissance man and eventually gave up Young Artists to play rock music and write. He was responsible for the careers of any number of illustrators, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy fields, but I don’t think it’s really been acknowledged how influential he was.
MCKENNA: Did you have any idea at the time that the work you and the other artists on the Young Artists roster (for example Chris Foss, Angus McKie, and Bob Fowke) were producing would be so influential and make such a lasting mark?
EDWARDS: Certainly not. I, at least, was just going from one job to the next in the hope that I could pay my bills for another couple of months. There were some hugely talented people working in the field but I’m sure we all thought that what we were producing was ephemeral and would quickly be forgotten. And, of course, those of us working in the genres of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi were in something of a ghetto. No one foresaw how the genres would grow. If you’d told me that one day there would be a TV show like Game of Thrones, I’d have laughed at you.
MCKENNA: Looking at your work, it feels as though you’ve constantly pushed yourself to develop your style and technique. (For example, you seem very open-minded and pragmatic about the realities of digital art.) Is it important to you to experiment?
EDWARDS: There’s a lot to learn about painting and one thing I did learn at art school was that you pretty much have to teach yourself. Also, if you’re painting day after day, you have to make it interesting and challenging or you just become a machine. Testing yourself is important if you want to progress. As to digital art, while I think some of it is absolutely wonderful, I feel I don’t really want to do it myself as it takes me away from “real” painting. I’ll do it if it’s called for, but I’m too addicted to the smell of turpentine. I suppose, if I was starting out now, I’d be a digital artist, because that is certainly where the work is, but I wouldn’t be working in publishing.
MCKENNA: You’re a master of composition, and it’s obviously enormously important in your work. How do you go about devising the composition for a painting?
EDWARDS: One of the best compliments I’ve ever had was from a German fan who said, “I am an engineer and I really appreciate your formal compositions.” I thought, “at last, somebody gets it,” and was really pleased with myself for the rest of the day. However, I don’t really have any rules and I usually start with a central figure and decide where it’s going on the page. Then I just build the picture around it, adding elements or removing them until I get the effect I want. So it’s not really a “formal” procedure at all but a process of trial and error. The important thing is to keep in mind the effect you wanted in the first place and be ruthless in trying to achieve it.
MCKENNA: Following on to that, have you ever been tempted to try your hand at scenery design for theater or cinema? Your grasp of dramatic spaces would seem to make you a natural for it.
EDWARDS: The opportunity has never come up. I’m not sure how it would work out as, in spite of what you said, I’m very much a 2D artist. I’m hopeless at using 3D software, for example. Creating the illusion of space is one thing, but actually having to deal with a real 3D world is different.
MCKENNA: Given your immense experience, has your process of coming up with the image for a new painting changed over the years?
EDWARDS: It’s certainly got more difficult. I try to avoid repeating myself too much but it’s inevitable after all this time. There are only so many variations on a theme that you can come up with. That’s the trouble with fantasy and sci-fi art. We all keep re-using the same ideas and the same subject matter. Occasionally someone raises the bar in terms of technique, but the themes don’t change very much. I try to be true to the source material as much as I can and give an honest interpretation. You don’t always get the chance, of course. Publishers love a formula, so you sometimes find yourself recycling yet another cliché. I’m not knocking the use of clichés; they’re extremely useful for getting ideas across quickly and we all rely on them to an extent.
MCKENNA: So many of your paintings are iconic that it seems ludicrous to ask about one in particular, but I’m particularly fond of Tombworld from 1981’s Tour of the Universe (it was the first time that I remember actually wanting to know the name of a contemporary artist). What do you remember about that particular commission?
EDWARDS: There was a short lived fashion for illustrated books, and Tour of the Universe was one of several that Young Artists was involved in. I don’t recall the story behind the painting but I do remember that it was one of those jobs where I knew exactly what I wanted to do right from the start. I also knew where to lay my hands on the right reference material, which is always a good start. I was pleased with the way it turned out, but I don’t think it was received with any great enthusiasm by the clients. I suppose it was something of a “slow burner” and it’s certainly become one of my most popular pieces. The odd thing is that I was asked to recreate the feel and atmosphere of Tombworld for another job and found that I just couldn’t do it.
MCKENNA: In recent years, much of the imagery that you helped popularize in the popular visual imagination—zombies, barbarians, and vampires, for example—seems to have gained a much firmer foothold in the mainstream. Do you have any ideas as to why that might be, and how do you feel about it?
EDWARDS: The lunatics have taken over the asylum. I think it has a lot to do with gaming. People have grown up with the books and games and the interest has continued into their adult lives. Now they are the people not only consuming the stuff but creating the movies and TV shows, so they naturally make stuff they’d like to see. When I was young, SF and fantasy, such as it was, was largely dismissed as kid’s stuff, and some people still have a condescending attitude to it, but the geeks have finally won. I don’t know if it will continue. I’ve certainly reached saturation point as far as superhero movies are concerned. If you’d told me as a kid that there would be a string of Batman movies I’d have jumped for joy, but now I think, “Do we really need another one?” As I said above, it gets tricky when you’re recycling the same ideas.
MCKENNA: You’ve worked on every conceivable type of project, from Victorian, romantic potboilers to nuclear-attack-themed cheesecake “for men only.” Do you have any guilty pleasures as far as commissions go?
EDWARDS: You could certainly say that the men only stuff was a guilty pleasure. I often think that it’s an area I’d like to revisit but I think creating something which is genuinely erotic would be the aim and that’s very difficult. I’ve done erotic comics in the past and that was interesting but very hard work. I frequently think that I’d have fun with a purely erotic painting but I feel I need the permission of actually being commissioned.
MCKENNA: Your paintings are often hugely cinematic. Do you think the cinema has influenced you? Favorite films?
EDWARDS: The cinema is probably the biggest influence of all, right back to the early movie serials and naïve SF films like Conquest of Space, which my dad took me to see when I was about five. My favorite films do tend to be epic: Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, although I’d have to include Psycho, which is not epic but quite claustrophobic. It could be a very long list.
MCKENNA: You painted the poster for Hawk the Slayer. What are your memories of that? Did you work with Terry Marcel or the production team at all? And on a personal note, have you ever considered watching The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (another film for which you provided the poster) again? It’s ripe for reappraisal!
EDWARDS: I don’t think I ever met anyone from the production team. I was just given a load of production stills to work from. I remember being pleased that someone was actually making a fantasy film; I’m pretty sure this was before the Schwartzenegger Conan was made, and there was a lot of talk that Hawk the Slayer was the precursor of a wave of sword and sorcery films. The wave never really materialised. We had to wait a bit longer. I heard recently that there might be plans to do a follow up to Hawk which could be fun. As to The Archer, I didn’t know it was available. I assumed it had disappeared to wherever lost films go.
MCKENNA: Is there a project that you’d like to paint but have never yet managed to get around to?
EDWARDS: I always wanted a go at Michael Moorcock’s Elric, but it’s a bit like Batman; he’s been done to death. John Picacio did a superb version and I don’t think I could better it. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has always been a favourite if I could just get the tripods right, and I’ve always had a feeling I’d like a crack at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’ve read that any number of times but just can’t figure out how to do Mr. Hyde. You never know though.
MCKENNA: Do you love all your pictures equally, or are there some that hold a special place in your heart?
EDWARDS: I certainly don’t love them all. I’ve produced some real stinkers in my time, like everyone. I ‘m quite proud of Curious Warnings, the M.R. James book I did with Steve Jones. That was something of an ambition fulfilled. There are a few other paintings where I think I got things right but my opinion tends to change over time. Don’t ask me to choose a favourite though. I’d have to say it’s the next one, and that’s a cliché.
MCKENNA: What are you working on at the moment, and what have you got lined up for the future?
EDWARDS: I have a large fantasy painting on the easel at the moment, a personal piece and, I hope, the first of two that I’ve got in mind. I’m also working the first book of a trilogy by Ramsey Campbell which I’m extremely pleased to be doing. Ramsey Campbell is a class act and I hope I can do him justice. It will be published by PS Publishing, who are old chums.
MCKENNA: And finally—if you could pick any painting by any artist to hang in your otherworldly castle, what would it be and why?
EDWARDS: John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, because it’s such a wonderful piece of bravura painting. He’s at the height of his powers and he knows it and he’s showing off like anything. Some people don’t like it for just that reason, but I love it.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.