Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Illustrated Album Covers: "The handmaiden to music"

I received a note from one reader last week who said he very much enjoyed Sheilah Beckett's work - especially the Gilbert & Sullivan album cover art presented on the Monday. "Have you thought of devoting a couple of weeks to album cover art?" he asked. As it happens, I have presented quite a bit of album cover art over the last few years, but his note got me thinking about the subject once more. I dug out an article I recalled seeing in the November 1960 issue of American Artist magazine and, lo and behold, it contained (among many other things) another wonderful example of Sheilah Beckett's artwork!

The article begins...

A consistently exciting and esthetically rewarding marriage between American art and industry flourishes in the phonograph record industry. This country has been the leader in making an artistic success as well as a potent selling tool of what originated as a mere protective package for recordings.

I would add that it also provided illustrators searching for replacement markets for the waning magazine illustration industry with a new source of income. The timing of this article at the end of 1960 fits perfectly with what was a troubling period in the history of our industry - something Sheilah confirmed once again only last week.

The article continues...

Album cover art must be primarily in the poster tradition. Artists and photographers are commissioned to interpret and visually sell all of the varied forms of music. They must translate for the eye and impress upon the consumer the glamor, beauty and excitement of the opera house, the Broadway theatre, the concert and dance hall, the nightclub, and the motion picture.

Robert M. Jones, art director at RCA/Victor was the author of this article so I imagine he spoke with some authority on the subject. Jones wrote, "I believe no industry in the United States offers a wider range of expression and artistic technique than the approximately 300 recording companies. Annually they produce between 7,500 and 8,000 different recordings, all of which require artwork for their packaging."

This week we'll take a look at some of that artwork. Artwork that Jones described as taking on "the secondary, hard-working role of handmaiden to music."

* My Illustrated Album Covers Flickr set.

* Many thanks to Ken Steacy for the gift of the Ice Station Zebra album! Ken points out that only the front cover is by Howard Terpning. The back cover was painted by Robert McCall.


  1. One of the many "offshoots" of my collection has been album cover art by comic book artists and other illustrators. Folks like Leo & Diane Dillon have magnificent accomplishments in the field, as do Jack Davis, Rick Griffin, Frank Frazetta, William Stout, etc. I can't wait to see what YOU turn up.

  2. Ken Steacy is definitely a go-to guy on the history, and collecting of illustration!

  3. The Ice Station Zebra illo is so so dope

  4. I loved Ice Station Zebra. Very cool illustrations!