Its funny how you feel when a famous person dies. You can often feel a connection to someone you never met, never would meet, and yet they had a massive influence on you.
We lost a great artist with a unique vision this month, a guy by the name of Patrick Woodroffe. During his long career, he’d produced science fiction book jackets and album covers, illustrated and written fiction books, and worked on his own idiosyncratic sculptures and paintings. And most importantly to me, I discovered his work at the tender age of 13 and he completely blew my mind! Star Wars had come out five years ago, I was nourishing my brain on a diet of Adam Warlock and other such cosmic-vitamin-enriched goodness, and may or may not have just discovered D&D.
My family went from down from Aberdeen to London for a couple of weeks to stay with my Dad’s cool younger brother and his wife and kids. They lived in London (way cooler than Aberdeen, and everyone there had an English accent like me). They had a couple of cats – the first ones I ever really spent any time with. It felt like a great opportunity to escape from all the mild crappiness of being a nerdy teenager in a Scottish high school.
They had a book with a distorted looking elephant-snail hybrid on the front that I first misread as saying “Monty Python”, due to that phenomena where you only read the first and last letters of a word. The pictures inside looked surreal and kind of funny, and it wasn’t until I took a proper look at it that I realised what it was. Mythopoiekon by Patrick Woodroffe covered his early art, weird and whimsical sculptures and etchings through to his 70s prog rock album covers for the likes of Judas Priest and Greenslade, and his sci-fi book jackets for Heinlein, Moorcock, Piers Anthony and other greats. His commentary was warm and friendly and rambling, and really suited the image of a beardy pipe-smoker in the back of the book.
I was hooked. Between that, the Salvador Dali book I’d bought from the Tate Gallery, and my leather-pants wearing art teacher, I was determined that I was going to be an artist.
Woodroffe kind of lead me astray a bit, looking back. He talked about some pretty heavy-duty techniques in Mythopoeikon. Copperplate etching – where a copper plate is covered in ground, the ground is scratched away, and the plate soaked in an acid bath to produce a printing plate. Silverpoint – drawing with a piece of silver, whose delicate marks only become visible when the silver tarnishes. I didn’t go this far, but did buy Rotring Rapidograph pens for drawing, which were expensive and messy and clogged up all the time. I tried oil painting, when all I really wanted to do was lay down flat colours. I messed around with marbling, old school with oil-based paints on water. But, I did get drawing and painting.
Possibly even bigger was the introduction to the writing of Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony. I don’t think I ever owned copies of their books with the Woodroffe covers, but I did get to drop into a whole new world of experimental adult sci-fi and fantasy. Jerry Cornelius, Moorcock’s ultra-cool assassin, burnt a swinging 60’s shape hole into my head that exists to this day.
Somewhere in the intervening years I cooled down, and decided that studying physics would be a better bet than going to art school.
Woodroffe was the gateway to other artists. Roger Dean’s “Views” was in the school library, full of cool distant vistas of floating rocks and gravity-free beaches, with his strange organic habitats. He lead me astray too, by doing album covers for Yes, which taught me that liking the cover doesn’t mean the music inside will be to your taste. I became aware of Chris Achilleos, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, but none of them ever quite matched Woodroffe. I discovered last week that Roger Dean makes better desktop wallpaper – Woodroffe’s images are often too weird or not appropriate for work. I couldn’t find a suitable tribute wallpaper for him, I guess he’s just too complex to fit into a mere rectangle.
When I look at the seven s-words I used to describe Universe Gun, they all apply to him. Strange, Psychedelic Sci-fi, check. All these guys did that. Sexy? Mythopoiekon had its fair share of boobs, but it was a far cry from the straightforwards pneumatic fantasies of Vallejo. Disturbingly child-like figures in stockings and lingerie pepper his early work, his sleeker commerical work has the odd topless centaur or cat statue, or headless octopus leg women in the case of the Moorcock cover above. Silly? Yeah, Woodroffe was silly and whimsical in a way the other guys weren’t. Roger Dean was incredibly cool, but you didn’t feel the artist’s personality and quirks come through like you did with Woodroffe. Maybe the best way to put it is that he was the most British of these artists.
After this inital explosion, me and Woodroffe parted ways. I was rescued from Rapidograph hell by a Marvel comics editorial by Steve Leialoha, where he discussed some really nice pens he’d bought in his local newsagent to ink with. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and got me some Pilot V5’s. I know from Woodroffe’s website that he produced a number of books since then, which I haven’t read, although I did buy a new copy of Mythopoiekon a few years back.
So, this stranger who caused a revolution in my life is no longer alive. I’m not really sad – I hear he passed peacefully after a long and amazing life, and I still have my book to flick through whenever I want to. I can still track down his other work some day. I know that just like he inspired me, and so many others around the world, he can and will continue to do so posthumously.
If our paths hadn’t crossed, I’d probably have found someone else to kick start my interest in art. But I’m glad it was him.
Dr Mike 2000, 25 May 2014