Pelham airbrushes Ballard

airbrush illustration of flying tank to represent the Wind from Nowhere

The art director, David Pelham, was a fan of JG Ballard’s early science fiction novels and “their heartless depiction of technological and human breakdown and decay.” In 1974 he approached Ballard about new covers for four impending reprints. 

The two men were well-acquainted through their mutual friend, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi whom Pelham had once used to illustrate an earlier Penguin cover. He went to meet the author armed with sketches and a small test illustration he had airbrushed only the night before.

I still have some of those early thumbnails, and I notice in the margin of one of them are my notes, quickly scribbled at that meeting and obviously suggested by Ballard. The notes say ‘monumental / tombstones / airless thermonuclear landscape / horizons / a zone devoid of time’. (The Ballardian)

Pelham had originally thought of commissioning the German artist Konrad Klapheck whom he admired for his paintings of monumentalised everyday machines such as typewriters and sewing machines .”The dynamic, low eye-line perspective and cold precision of Klapheck’s imagery struck me as a good starting point for a set of visually strong and related covers.”

Konrad Klapheck painting of sewing machine in smooth painting style                                                           Konrad Klapheck, “She-Dragon”, 1964

Pelham’s preparation worked. Ballard agreed enthusiastically and four titles, with slipcase, went into production. Pelham painted the covers himself and they are a highpoint in his time at Penguin, both as cover artist and as art director. “It was a huge pleasure working so closely with Ballard, and I’m pleased to report that the titles in these covers sold very well.”

Cadillac Coup-de-Ville illustrated half buried in sandChrysler Building in Surrealist illustration shown submerged in water up to spireHiroshima atom bomb called "Fat Boy" in surrealist illustration as half buried in sand

The covers are notable for the surreal atmosphere. Each one depicts an object that stands for the premise of the novel. They have an ominous mood, in tune with the entropic tone of Ballard’s fiction: 

“Ransom…looked at the craft beached around him. Shadowless in the vertical sunlight, their rounded forms seemed to have been eroded of all but a faint residue of their original identities, like ghosts in a distant universe where drained images lay in the shallows of some lost time.” (The Drought, 1965)

The four reprints were sold separately but also as a stylish slipcase set, complete with wraparound illustration depicting an abandoned nuclear bomber.

Nuclear bomber illustrated as abandoned and half-buried in sand foe Penguin JG Ballard slipcase                                        Penguin JG Ballard series shown with four books plus slipcase with airbrush illustrations by David Pelham                                (Boxed set photos from:


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