Waspships with a laser sting

“Chris Foss shows us spaceships too big for planetary horizons to hold. The spectacle of his leviathans, glittering with lights and banded with the warning colours of poisonous insects or reptiles, confounds all expectation of scale. This achievement has placed him in the front rank of science fiction artists; his space hardware was the first to convey extraterrestrial dimension convincingly. His paintings give form to intergalactic arks, ram-jetting or ion-driving entire civilizations from one remote star system to another. The only space in which these structures look at home is: Space.

“Foss’ imagery has captured the imagination to such an extent that he now commands a small army of imitators, movie designers included; think of the gargantuan starships and fabricated pseudoplanets of Star Wars, for example, and then look at the pictures in this book. It is no surprise that Foss now works directly on movie design and conceptualization, with film companies competing for his time.

“But why do Foss’ future conveyances and landscapes look so convincing? Foss suggests, with amusement, that his craft are “old fashioned and historic” This is true: his inventions evoke memories of Great War ‘landships’ and battleships, Edwardian liners, even Victorian suspension bridges. He says that they are “very tatty spaceships” again, it’s true that the explosions his craft endure in space-battle often leaves them scarred and blasted, limping home to monstrous, continental dry docks. But the curiously antiquated aspect of his work, as well as his meticulous eye for detail and scale, is why Foss’ cities, ships, and transport systems occupy a reality of their own. They are simultaneously the precursors and the relics of the coming space age. Weary but functioning, they represent the everyday reality of a future accustomed to the extraordinary.

“Chris Foss’ past may help to explain his unique retrospective vision of the 21st century. He was born in 1946 in Devon, England. As a child he was fascinated by the remains of the Industrial Revolution, and explored the aging railway tracks and disused mines that are still in evidence throughout the West Country. This interest led him to build models of railway lines and steam engines which he soldered up from whatever scraps of metal he could find. An art teacher encouraged his early ability with a pencil, and Foss took to sketching the surrounding countryside in between building his intricate railway models. The same teacher persuaded him to attempt a scholarship course that won him a place at a public school in Dorset.

“Foss escaped the confines of that school as frequently as he could to sketch the semi-derelict shipyards and harbour installations at nearby Poole. At the same time he developed an interest in cars; he rebuilt and repainted car wrecks to create new workable machines. He was even then obsessed by speed, colour and hybrid technology. He also drew incessantly, recording his creations as they grew. Source material for his architectural imagination was provided by the huge fortifications constructed by the Nazis during their occupation of Guernsey. Foss often visited the island since he had family connections there. The fierce sunlight and harsh shadows in his work, the massive towers and ramparts punctuated by gun emplacements and look-out posts featured in his ships and cities may well be connected with memories of this fortress-island.

“Influences, though, are only half the story; technique and reputation took much longer to establish. Foss’ earliest ambition was to be an artist, but his family disapproved; so in 1964 he compromised and went to Cambridge University to study architecture. He soon discovered the grey limitations of the subject: “Architects have no conception of colour or of the presence that a building should impose:” While at Cambridge he sold one-off cartoons to ‘Autocar’ and a six page cartoon strip to Bob Guccione’s ‘Penthouse” magazine. The contacts he gained through these efforts were to prove invaluable later, but when he dropped out of his course in 1966, he took a job with an architectural sculptor. It was not what he wanted to do, but it gave him a living and left him time to continue with his drawing and painting. He produced working drawings for mould assemblies and drew plans for sculpted features of new buildings, including the bronzed fibreglass rear facings for the doors of Liverpool Cathedral. He still sold artwork where he could, gradually developing his technique and style. In 1968 he bought an airbrush, “the only way I could see to get smooth gradations of pigment quickly,” and at about the same time he found another lasting influence: his wife, Pat. He is now a happily married man with a daughter called Imogene.

“The years from 1968 to 1970 were difficult for Foss. He left the architectural sculptor’s office, and maintained himself and his wife by driving hire-cars in between long periods of drawing. Bob Guccione helped Foss greatly by putting him on a small retainer to produce theme drawings for an upmarket book in the ‘Barbarella, genre: “I owe Bob a lot. My artwork wasn’t up to commercial standards then, but he kept me going while I got there” And after the summer of 1969, which he spent driving cabs in Guernsey, all of these efforts paid off. A cover design for Constable Ltd., a publishing company, led to an introduction to a hard-selling design agency, and Foss’ career entered a steady upswing. At first he tackled all kinds of book covers, “miscellaneous stuff, including some horrible disasters with figure work” but he gradually became sought after for his airbrushed scenes of warfare: planes, ships, submarines or starships. It was the starships, though, that really made his reputation.

“The distinction of his futuristic work was obvious, yet unexpected. Hard and functional self-driving cities were juxtaposed with cloud-banked or galactic vistas. His structures were asymmetrical, immense, and totally unlike the needle-nosed and streamlined shapes favoured by his predecessors. Another influential innovation in Foss’ work was colour: blacks, reds, blues and yellows converted his spaceships into interstellar waspships with a laser sting.

“In the space of six years Chris Foss has become an international success. Authors like Isaac Asimov specifically ask for his work to illustrate their books. (One of his current projects is an illustrated version of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ trilogy.) His prolific output has brought him money, which he greatly enjoys and considers “as necessary as air for anybody, but especially a creative person” Books like ‘The Joy of Sex’ and ‘More Joy of Sex; which he illustrated with delicate line drawings, testify to his artistic versatility. But at the moment the film industry is where his interests lie. He now finds himself in the fortunate position of being in demand for cinema work in the same way that he was sought after by art editors for science fiction cover design.

“Foss’ first break into movies came in 1975 when Alejandro Jodorowsky, a brilliant Paris-based film director with a cult following, saw some of his cover work. He was engaged in filming Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune, and needed an artist to conceptualize the far-reaching panoply of the Padishah Empire, together with the ships and habitations of its sand-born opponents. Foss was called over to Paris in the autumn of 1975, and found himself in a new world. Movie design offered him both a challenge and the freedom to extend his imagination to previously unexplored dimensions. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s preface to the Dune section of this book suggests the atmosphere into which Foss plunged himself, and gives an extraordinary personal account of Foss, his work on Dune, and on science fiction projections in general. Unfortunately, the film of Dune was never completed. It will be one day; and when it is, will most likely be designed by Chris Foss.

“After the backers withdrew and the project folded, Foss came back to England and continued working on covers. But by now the cinematic grapevine had done its work and more film offers were to follow in quick succession. His first assignment was to conceptualize the planet Krypton fora movie based on Superman. Most recently, 20th Century Fox contacted Foss to see if he would work on concepts for Alien. He went to Los Angeles in June 1977, and worked for four months on the project. Since returning to England, he has taken on the conceptualization and design of three further films. On one he will be building the sets and will have control over all details of the visuals, including costumes.

“Look at the drawings in this book. When these movies appear, there will be no question that Chris Foss is one of the finest science fiction artists working; at least, on this planet.”

Text: N.A. “Introduction”, 21st Century Foss. [Haarlem: Dragon’s Dream Ltd], 1979. 6-13

Image: Chris Foss, Turner Spaceship, [n.d.].

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