Science fiction and the arts

In July, I wrote a short introduction to the cataloguing work I have been doing with the collection donated by Professor Sir Alan Bowness and the insights from the donor’s own notes. After cataloguing and skimming through more of the collection, I found an enjoyable and unexpected theme amongst the collection of exhibition catalogues: science fiction & fantasy.

The out of this world cover of Bowness.b.471

Beyond this horizon : catalogue of exhibitions (Bowness.b.471) first caught my eye with its colourful cover of a stern man in a space suit against a massive satellite and orbiting ships, a commission made specifically for the exhibit by sci-fi cover artist Eddie Jones. This group of exhibitions was organized in 1973 by Ceolfrith Arts in Sunderland, an organization devoted to innovative and collaborative art (see The catalogue is filled with detailed and imaginative illustrations, photographs, models and paintings that could easily be the backdrop of classic science fiction and fantasy books and television.

Selections from an exhibition of “Space Age Models” and illustrations by Josh Kirby.

Many of the artists featured in the exhibition were successful sci-fi novel illustrators. Josh Kirby, who was featured in the straight-forwardly named “Science Fiction Cover Art” exhibition went on to create numerous illustrations for well-known works of fiction, from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to John Carter of Mars (see Some of his cover art can be seen at the UL, particularly amongst the colourful 20th century paperbacks in the Library Tower. The cover art for Ian Fleming’s Moonraker ties in well with the themes of space exploration and the new age as part of an exciting backdrop for James Bond.

1959 paperback edition of Moonraker, with dramatic cover art by Josh Kirby.

The most recognizable covers illustrated by Kirby can be found in the popular series of Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. There are many copies of Pratchett and Kirby’s collaborative efforts available at the UL. Kirby illustrated a cover for the paperback version of the first Discworld novel The colour of magic and Pratchett subsequently requested him to stay on as illustrator of the series. For more of the Discworld artwork and a short biography of Josh Kirby, check out the Josh Kirby Discworld portfolio of artwork from the series.

An evolution of Kirby’s Discworld illustrations, from 1983 to 2001.

An exhibition organized in the same year by Ceolfrith Arts, later the Sunderland Arts Centre, was Aerial structures (Bowness.b.475), a fun exhibition of gliders, windmills, and other aerial installations inspired by the organiser’s sighting of an experimental windsock. Though there are no spaceships or rockets, the open invitation to artists, designers, engineers and others to define “aerial structures” resulted in an imaginative mixture of experimental and practical creations.

For those more interested in extra-terrestrials than human exploration and fantasy, there is The UFO show, an interesting catalogue of artworks inspired by the UFO, or unidentified flying object. The exhibition was curated and displayed at Illinois State University Galleries around the turn of the new millennium, looking backwards and looking forwards. There are numerous short articles by some of the artists and other writers, about the history of UFOs, and turn of the century (20th-21st) artworks and films inspired by space (Independence Day, Men in Black, Galaxy Quest and more). For a more in-depth analysis of UFOs and their psychic significance, you could also check out Carl Jung’s Flying saucers.

Photograph of the UFO Show installation, by Karl Rademacher.

It just goes to show that you never know exactly what you’ll get when working your way through accessions. There are many other themes and art styles to explore in the Bowness donation, relating to 20th century painting, British artists, groundbreaking installations, Surrealism, and more. I am very grateful to Sir Alan for donating this wonderful collection which provided some of the best material a person could learn to catalogue from.

Emily Perdue

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