How a London gallerist uncovered a trove of 1960s and 70s pulp illustration

How a London gallerist uncovered a trove of 1960s and 70s pulp illustration

The worlds evoked by 1960s pulp novels were bombastic, beautiful and base. Filled with larger than life characters, sensational storylines, and love triangles of pin-up proportions, it was the Netflix of the 60s.

Behind the scenes of the novels’ production, however, manufactured glamour gave way to dusty London and Italian agencies, filled with wildly skilled illustrators. The likes of Renato Fratini, Michael Johnson and Gianluigi Coppola worked all hours, rattling off impeccable sketches, with nothing for inspiration but the rugged notes of speed-readers employed to consume manuscript after manuscript.

These illustrators built an aesthetic – which in turn built an industry – on the back of bits of old board. Though the paperbacks were published in their millions on cheap, wood-pulp paper (the industry’s namesake), many of the original illustrations were discarded, lost or seen as worthless.

Lever Gallery co-founder and director Didier Madoc-Jones knows better. He has dedicated years hunting them in attics and online stores, and now, the walls of his London gallery are lined with the oft-forgotten patrons of pulp, providing glimmers of treasure in trash fiction in the exhibition ‘Uncovered: Illustrating the Sixties and Seventies’.

Renato Fratini, for The Hucksters, 1965. Courtesy of Lever Gallery

‘The joy of pulp illustration was its lack of subtlety, and its over-exaggeration,’ he says. ‘It helped publications off the shelves, tempting readers into the charismatic world of the bestseller.’

Before long, publishers of ‘more respectable’ literature were mining the same rich vein. In the late 60s, pulp illustration found itself nestling in the arch of the high brow, its glamorous promise employed to shift books penned by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Sinclair Lewis and CP Snow. All of a sudden, the works of Renato Fratini and Michael Johnson were lining the bookshelves of a readership that had probably never heard of them.

But, just as it was easing into its new life of leather-bound luxury, pulp illustration lost out to the 1970s new kid on the block – photography, which ushered in an era of harder edged realism.

Woman with Pines, 1964-65, by Michael Johnson. Courtesy of Lever Gallery

Despite being bumped from the popular consciousness, Madoc-Jones believes that the original illustrations deserve to be ‘appreciated for their artistic merit’ today. ‘When you look closely at the original works we have presented in the gallery, they’re more akin to abstractions, with great sweeping brush strokes. The level of talent these artists had was quite unbelievable.’ Indeed, the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake can be read in the colourful, post-war Americana of the drawings.

Nonetheless, pulp was the art of the hired gun, managed by deadline dealers. That these illustrators were able to turn around works of such dynamism in a matter of moments is perhaps their greatest cache. It’s something alien to our mindset in this digitally reliant age, where if we want to add a layer or remove a detail, we turn to Photoshop, not a new piece of chipboard.

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