Chris Foss

Chris Foss was born in Guernsey, Channel Islands. Both his parents were schoolteachers who worked on the UK mainland, during term time the Foss family – parents, Chris and his younger brother – lived in Devon, returning to the island during the school holidays.

Even before he started school, Chris was absorbing influences from the world around him, recalling “all the gutted houses in Exeter which had been bombed in the War.” The Channel Islands had been occupied by German troops from 1940 until 1945, the only part of the British Isles to be invaded. Hitler felt the islands were of strategic importance to the invasion of Britain and ordered the construction of a series of fortifications around the coast of Guernsey and the larger island, Jersey.

Chris was born less than a year after the end of World War II, and these imposing structures made a lasting impression on him. “The German fortifications in Guernsey were almost brand-new when I was exploring them from about the age of seven,” he recalls. “I’d be quite scared because there’d be warning signs and barbed wire. They were crudely sealed and not too difficult to get into; there was a real excitement to worming my way into the elaborate bunker complexes and occasionally finding odd bits and pieces the Germans had left behind. It was an eerie experience, as I’d be on my own and no one knew I was in there. There was a curiously depressive atmosphere. In some of the towers the wallpaper and decorations the Germans had put up to make them more homely were still there.”

These structures are a recurring theme in Chris’ work. “I’m fascinated by the proportions of the towers, and they remind me of huge Easter Island gods looking out to sea, positioned as they are at strategic points around the island. They’re like big toothless masks. The towers are very precise, with a scientific taper to the top. The Germans could build an entire tower out of concrete in a forty-eight hour period. To this day I’m fascinated by concrete – the sheer mass of concrete contained in these towers I find very impressive.”

He was also intrigued by the bunkers on the island. “They recalled for me the huge boulders in the comic book westerns I loved as a child.” Chris still remembers seeing the wider aftermath of Word War II, aged just six, during an early family holiday to Europe in the Foss’ 1936 Daimler. “The war had only been over a few years,” he says. “Seeing bomb-damaged, strafed derelict buildings made a huge impression.” The family even stayed in Nuremberg stadium, which had been turned into a campsite.

A year later Chris started at a preparatory boarding school in Dorset. His art master at the school encouraged him to train for an art scholarship, offering invaluable support. “He had a natural enthusiasm,” Chris recalls fondly. “We went out sketching regularly on river banks in the area. He taught me all my perspective and representational knowledge.

Chris’ career ambitions were formed at an early age. “I always loved to draw, and by ten or eleven I knew I wanted to be an artist.” Alongside his love of art, Chris’ other interests were typical for a boy growing up in early 1950s Britain – he loved cowboy annuals and a radio series called Journey into Space (1953–1958). “I’d listen to our radio in front of a blazing fire and I’d be absolutely transfixed,” he says. In fact, perhaps surprisingly considering his later career path, Chris was more interested in westerns than sf. “The imagery of the westerns I found mesmerising. I avidly collected cowboy annuals such as Maverick and Bronco Lane.”
Growing up, the only sf film which made a lasting impression on Chris was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). “The modern and the sleek never appealed to me,” Chris explains. “Even as a child the sf films seemed like a complete joke; they looked like they were made out of tin foil — and generally they were.” However as an adult, later sf films which employed a different, more sophisticated visual approach led him to a new appreciation of the genre, Dark Star (1974) and Brazil (1985) being particular favourites.
The first western film Chris saw was The Lone Ranger (1956). “It opened with this marvellous shot of the cowboys riding through this terrific western landscape. So when I finally got to California to work on Alien (1979), that’s what I really wanted to see, the ranches where they shot all the cowboy films.” The landscapes and the atmosphere were what really excited Chris. “I loved seeing the cowboys coming down the trail from a distant horizon with all the dust and the thunder of the horses’ hooves. “There’s always been something about distance and wide-open space that excites me. A lot of my science fiction landscapes are actually western landscapes transported into a space setting. Open vistas are a big influence in my work. A painting has to have an atmosphere; that’s one of the main things I strive to achieve.”
Chris’ grandfather gave him piles of National Geographic magazine from World War II which he read avidly, pouring over imagery of military hardware and far-away landscapes. He never forgot those early images, and was particularly gratified when the magazine contacted him in 1980. “One of my favourite jobs was for National Geographic. I was commissioned to illustrate scenes that happened in space that couldn’t be photographed, for example an asteroid collision, or a crater being created on Mercury by an impacting asteroid.”

He was also a big admirer of war photography, in particular “anything which documented the big machinery of war. My initial passion when I started painting at around twelve was battleships. At school I bought The Wonder Book of the Navy, which has a fantastic illustration in it of the Battle of the River Plate, with the tower of the Admiral Graf Spee burning and collapsing into the sea. To this day that illustration fascinates me.”

Another early and lasting passion, the influence of which can be seen in his later work, are steam trains. “My dad loved trains and he’d take my brother and me on rides on little railway lines in North Devon, which we adored,” Chris recalls. From the age of eight Chris would cycle miles on his own from his boarding school to the nearest station to watch and ride on the locomotives. “It was a big station in the middle of nowhere, on a little line which I used to regard as my own personal railway. I’d invariably be the only person on the train. I loved the engine, the steam, all the rattling and banging along the track, leaning out of the window getting bits of hot soot in my eyes as it went through the most beautiful countryside. Sometimes the driver would even let me ride in the cab.”

At thirteen Chris won an art scholarship to attend a public school, also in Dorset. He became fascinated by the surrounding wide rolling landscape. The art master gave him the keys to the art room so he could work any time he wanted. “I used to sleep all day and paint at night or bunk off and explore abandoned quarries and disused railway lines,” he says. “It was a very liberated environment.”

Art became a refuge during the holidays spent on Guernsey, as without his boarding school friends he felt relatively isolated. During those times he “became totally absorbed in the painting and drawing.” Although his parents didn’t encourage his art, feeling his time could be better spent on household chores or studying, his mother’s interests indirectly fuelled Chris’ own. “She had great architectural and design abilites and she was always coming up with very innovative ideas. She had a lot of art books, and was always buying odd bits of art,” Chris recalls. “When I was about eight, she bought one of Picasso’s major etchings, which was huge, dark and broodingly sad. The picture fascinated me.” Chris admires the fact that Picasso had “the skill of a master draughtsman who later chose to turn to abstract work.”

Other masters Chris remembers coming across as a child in his mother’s many art magazines were William Turner and Graham Sutherland. He found Sutherland’s early abstract landscapes and paintings from the war particularly haunting, “especially as I was fascinated with the bombsites around Exeter.” A different element attracted Chris to Turner’s work: “The mist, the swirls, the light, the way the paint was applied – I find it very evocative.” A particular favourite is The Fighting Temeraire, which depicts “the modern steam tug towing the redundant old war ship to the breakers yard. In Turner Spaceship [1979] I have tried to recreate the light and the swirls and the sense of space with a very solid object in it. “I have a similar preoccupation with light to Turner. Guernsey light has a dramatic feel; intense blue skies which give a very sharp definition. The intensity of the light throws everything into relief and you can’t really see what’s in the shadows. The shadows just become uniformly dark. You’ve either got light or dark and very little in between, which of course is a theme of 2001. I think that’s why the ship in the film 2001 got me so excited – the way it’s lit, it’s just the way it would have looked if it was in the Guernsey sky.”

Home life was bohemian but austere. World War II had recently ended and Chris remembers his mother shopping for groceries at the village shop with a ration book. “There was money for the basics of life and we lived a very frugal existence.” Although his father was remote, he shared his passion and knowledge of geography. It gave Chris a good understanding of the formation of landscapes and an intrinsic fascination with geology, which can be seen in his rendering of terrestrial planets. Chris’ fascination with monolithic structures can also be traced back to his father, a teacher and later a headmaster, who on family expeditions managed to gain them access to power stations, harbours, dams and other areas normally off-limits to the general public. Chris and his younger brother and father would visit Guernsey harbour to watch the cranes unload the cargo from the ships. “The cranes conducted a sort of a ballet,” Chris recalls, “as they worked in synchronisation to avoid colliding. “As a child I was obsessed with my model railway layout, and also Meccano. I was building and making things from a very early age – I built huge cranes. The machinery of the Victorian era was what I grew up with; the modern world didn’t really exist for me in rural Devon and Guernsey in the 1950s.”

At four years old, Chris remembers visiting the patriarch of the family, Great Uncle Jack, in his huge, dark Victorian house on Jersey. His uncle had owned a building firm, and there was a huge granite workshop behind his house with a steam engine in a shed at the side which powered the tools. “One of my first memories of drawing was of my uncle and I sketching steam locomotives together in the workshop. The workshops were quite run down by then, and he‘d start up this big old steam engine which drove all the machinery via drive belts in this three-floored workshop. I remember the smell of the wood and the terrific excitement of the whole thing springing to life — seeing the machinery in action; all the belts, the saws. And he made me a boat out of wood. Seeing this rusting machinery of the Victorian age made a huge impression on me.”

At age fourteen Chris appropriated the “old German hut” in the garden of the Guernsey family home and turned it into his studio. His mother was supportive of this, his father less so. “I used to go and hide in the shed and paint,” he explains. “Dad was always trying to get me out to do odd jobs around the property, so I always felt like I was bunking off if I was in the shed painting.”

By the following year, he had come to the realisation that art could be a good way to make a living. He approached local businesses offering his services creating adverts. He also produced a weekly strip cartoon for The Guernsey Press lampooning a property development at the site of Guernsey’s huge Napoleonic Fort George – “they were turning it into a millionaires’ housing project”. Around this time Chris also started privately selling his oil paintings of land- and seascapes.

At eighteen, he went to Cambridge to study architecture. “I would have preferred to have gone to art school, but parental pressure dictated that I went to Cambridge.” In his first year he created a comic strip for the Cambridge Evening News. “I regularly submitted various strip cartoon proposals to newspapers, because at that stage I was very keen to become a cartoonist, based on the heavy influence of Fluke and cowboy comic books. One of those speculative submissions was to the fledgling Penthouse magazine. “[Penthouse magazine founder] Bob Guccione summoned me to London for an interview which resulted in me being offered a six-page commission, based on a surrealist interpretation of the Guernsey environment called The Pawn: A Black Parable by Christopher Foss [Penthouse: Volume 1, no. 11]. It was very much along the theme of A Harlot’s Progress.”

A year later he went to see Guccione at his home with a whole new portfolio of work consisting of visualisations for a Barbarella-style comic strip called Justine, which Guccione commissioned, but unfortunately didn’t get published. It was the Editor of Penthouse’s book division who prompted Chris to get an agent, which led him to his first agency, Artist Partners. Joining the agency allowed Chris to meet many of his commercial artist contemporaries, some of whom became life-long friends. “I met a fantastic artist call Michael Johnson and I’ve been a great fan of his work ever since. He’s a past master at putting a figure in a landscape and his cloudscapes are awesome. He’s also an expert aircraft artist. His visualisations, based on a sound technical knowledge, are stunning, especially the cloud effects. We’ve been friends for over forty years.”

Coming from Cambridge in 1966 to the exotic environment of 60s London and particularly Penthouse was very exciting to a twenty year-old Cambridge student. In addition, Guccione paid the fledgling artist a one-year retainer. “I was so happy to get my first proper commission.” The publisher was very supportive and Chris would visit him at his house once a week to discuss new artwork for the book. Guccione was living in some style in a South Kensington mews. “I’d visit him in the afternoon and he used to come down to let me in wearing a robe and patent leather shoes with socks and sock suspenders,” Chris recalls. “The phone would be going every three minutes, but I didn’t mind because the floor was covered with transparencies of naked women. You’d never seen anything like that in 1966 England; you would only see naked women in Health and Efficiency magazine back then!”
Guccione insisted that Chris saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). “The directness and sharpness of the light, the pure white sphere of the ship against a pure black background particularly made an impression on me. London in the 1960s was such a grey and dowdy place, so Kubrick’s visualisation was in real contrast to the drabness of post-war London. Coincidentally, one of Chris’ first big artwork projects was illustrating an article by Kubrick on extra-sensory perception for The Sunday Times. It featured a spaceship with a row of heads in the foreground. “Years later, in the early 1990s, Kubrick asked me to do design work on AI,” he adds, “so the wheel came full circle.”
In his early twenties Chris started working for William George Mitchell, the designer and sculptor. “We worked on various projects, including the Mayfair Curzon and Haymarket Cinema. George did a lot of work then with poured concrete, and this began my obsession with working with the material. I used to carve the moulds in foam or fibreglass. It was a relatively quick way to finish a large area and was very popular with civilian contractors.” Chris was thrilled when Mitchell allowed him to sculpt the backs of the big sliding doors for the new Liverpool Cathedral.

Around the same time, Chris got his first sf commission. “One of the agents at Artist Partners said, ‘You can draw anything that exists — you’ll be able to do these science fiction jobs.’” It was a recommendation that marked a significant turning point. From then on, the large number of war book cover commissions that Chris had been receiving was superseded by the sf work, which slowly took over.

When Chris started his book-illustrating career, publishing was very sociable. Most of the publishing houses in London were based in and around the West End, and he developed the habit of delivering a job on a Friday afternoon around four o’clock when the sales team, editors, art directors and so on were getting ready to leave the office for the weekend. “We all used to go to a pub on Poland Street and have quite a few drinks. An art director would be in the pub and say, ‘I’ve got another cover for you.’” As each publisher had their own authors, an artist would often get to be the cover artist for a particular author. “I’d wake up the next morning and find in my pockets all these notes scribbled on the back of cigarette packets, which would be my next commissions.” It was a fun and creative scene – and they would come up with a lot of ideas in the pub. “The modern publishing world seems so boring and grey now everything is done via email.”
At that time Chris was often painting three book covers a week, and he became notorious for not reading the books he was producing the cover art for. “One of my art directors used to phone me up with a job and say, ‘Chris, we need another Asimov,’ so I’d ask, ‘What do you need?’ He’d say, ‘The last one was blue, so give me a green one.’” An art director once told Chris “with a wry smile” that, at their weekly meeting, the senior editor had thrown the book he had illustrated across the room, saying, “Bloody Chris, he’s not read the book again.” The same art director also recounted how an author had complained about Chris’ work: “He said the artwork had nothing to do with the book. I said, ‘Oh, what was the problem? I thought it was a really nice painting.’ He said, ‘Yes, we liked it. We put it on the cover anyway, and we told the author to sod off.’”
That incident was the exception, not the rule. Throughout Chris’ career it has been rare for an author to give their opinion on a cover. “I don’t think the authors thought it was that important how the book was packaged.” However, in 1980, while he was in America working for National Geographic, he spent the day sightseeing with fantasy and sf author Philip K. Dick, who he had met at the Metz science fiction festival. “We had a lovely day and he took me around New York, so I expect he must have liked the pictures I did for his covers. Back at my hotel, Philip got me to paint spaceships in the sky on some quite nice but twee landscapes he’d bought. He thought it’d be funny to have spaceships floating in the sky.”
Chris is happy to hear that a book was bought simply because of his cover. When asked about his style being influential on other sf artists at the time, Chris reflects, “When I was a working illustrator I was annoyed because these guys who imitated me cost me work. Art directors would encourage artists to copy my style. The agents didn’t tell publishers I’d left, they would just say I was too busy to take the commission but they had other artists who did similar work. One art director explained to me that these other artists were very good at producing my style of artwork ‘at half the price of you, Chris, and twice as fast.’”
Chris remains annoyed by what he feels is a general tendency in the art world for the copyist and not the innovators to get the recognition. “Roy Lichtenstein, way back in the 1960s, took one frame of a cartoon and blew it up and got all the credit,” he points out. “Well, what about recognition for the skill of the original artist?” Of the perceived divide between ‘fine’ and ‘commercial’ art, Chris says, “The real talent is in commercial art. Fine art is just hot air. If you notice, at a fine art gallery opening they’re not looking at the pictures, they’re just drinking wine and looking at each other. In fine art people are told, ‘This art is good,’ and how much it’s expected to increase in value.”

He had never intended to change the look of sf. “For years I regarded myself as a jobbing illustrator, so I was really puzzled when some sort of a cult grew up,” he explains. His main preoccupation had simply been keeping enough money coming in, as by the age of twenty-two he was married with a baby. “I put pigment on paper. I often just saw the artwork as a job. In the early days, if an art director’s assistant said they liked an artwork, I’d give them the original painting. I was quite surprised later when people actually wanted to buy them. It never occurred to me that the paintings had any intrinsic value.” It was all about completing the commission and getting paid and then moving quickly on to the next one. It was also a way of working that suited Chris’ sensibilities. “I’d lose interest. I find it irritating having a picture hanging around; it drags you back, it drags you down. You start to see all the flaws and what’s wrong with it. “I am mildly proud that I appear to have innovated a realistic method of rendering an sf painting and that it can be treated on different levels, as a commercial painting and as a serious painting,” he adds, “and I feel pleased that I can say that I can draw and paint realistically.”
Alongside the book covers, Chris also received advertising commissions. “In the beginning there were lots of really crass, awful advertising jobs where I didn’t even bother to go back and collect the picture,” he recalls. “But they paid really well so I did the work. If they wanted me to paint a matchbox in the sky, I painted a matchbox in the sky. So when the Asimov jobs came along, you’d say ‘Whoopee!’, as these were the nice easy jobs in comparison. I could pretty much paint what I wanted. As a freelancer I’d feel very precarious, never knowing when the next job was coming in.”
Occasionally, though, there were some wonderful advertising jobs: designing the Malibu spaceships, which involved creating a massive model, and illustrations for Rolls Royce. During the 1980s Chris began to receive advertising commissions from France, one of which was a large campaign for the privatisation of the government-owned electricity sector. The French advertising house supplied Chris with studios in Leon and Paris to create a series of adverts. “This introduced me to the French high life – Michelin-starred restaurants and limousine travel.”

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide was a groundbreaking publication – the first serious illustrated sex manual to be widely distributed in the English-speaking world, and particularly in America. “When we did The Joy of Sex the publisher had to write a contract to agree to pay my and Charles Raymonds’ [fellow Joy of Sex artist] court charges if we were taken to court. No one had ever done willies before in a book. It was considered a very serious thing, and this was only six months after the infamous Oz [magazine] obscenity trial. “When Alex Comfort had the idea for The Joy of Sex, [publishers] Mitchell Beazley were very keen to do it — they were a young and very entrepreneurial company then. I got the job because I showed them the erotic drawings I’d done for Penthouse,” Chris recalls. “I created the drawings [for The Joy of Sex] from reference pictures I photographed of Charles and his missus. It was during the winter of 1970. Electricity was rationed due to strikes at the time and whole sections of London would lose power for hours on end. So when I was doing the reference pictures, not only were we trying to get the scene and the positions right, but we had the deadline hanging over us of the power being turned off… That was fairly hilarious, in retrospect – attempting to rush through this list of 200 positions in three or four sessions.
To read more: Purchase: Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss

What’s Chris up to now?
From his studios in Guernsey and Dorset, Chris continues to experiment with new techniques and mediums.

The airbrush is still in use but he now mainly paints using brush and oil paint rather than acrylics. He especially enjoys figure work, landscapes and 3D model design and making (by hand not computer!).

Except from Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss
Out July 21st UK & Sept 6th 2011 USA.