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"Jim Cawthorn and I have been inseparable for over twenty-five years, sometimes to the point where I can't remember which came first—the drawing or the story. It is his drawings of my characters which remain for me the most accurate, both in detail and in atmosphere. His interpretations in strip form will always be, for me, the best."


ElricJames Cawthorn, like his spiritual mentor, Burne Hogarth, is that rare thing: a unique and original mind working in a medium which, for the most part, despises uniqueness and originality. If anything, Cawthorn's lot has been tougher than Hogarth's: comics at least have shown the occasional flicker of intelligence and artistry over the hundred years of their development. By contrast, Cawthorn has chosen to work for much of his career in one of the 'lowest' genres of all, that of heroic fantasy.

As David Britton's interview makes clear, Cawthorn's talent and involvement in the early beginnings of this field in Britain have made him something of a pioneer. When he began drawing illustrations for Edgar Rice Burroughs fanzines in the 1950s the whole concept of 'the fan magazine' was in its infancy (coinciding, appropriately enough, with the birth of Rock'n'Roll) and was a world away from the flourishings of small magazines that would take place during the '60s and '70s. This new field saw the birth of an inspiring philosophy that said if the mainstream media are ignoring something that you regard as vital then you should get to work and start promoting the thing yourself, a lesson not lost on Cawthorn or on a young writer collaborator of his at the time, Michael Moorcock. In 1962 Cawthorn produced two portfolios based on The Lord of the Rings, the first illustrations of their kind after Tolkien's own. The same year he was drawing the definitive, character-defining illustrations for Moorcock's original Elric stories. A few years later Moorcock was editing New Worlds with Cawthorn on the regular staff, illustrating major pieces from Ballard, Aldiss and company. Moorcock has an anecdote from this period: the office was being visited one day by the artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (credited in the magazine as "Aeronautics advisor"). Paolozzi's eye was caught by a Cawthorn illustration on the wall, one of the original Elric pictures, and he remained there for a couple of minutes scrutinising the drawing. He seemed, says Moorcock, to have recognised that for all his art school training he was faced here with something that neither he nor colleagues such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake were capable of. This was the genuine article, real Pop Art, not the carefully contrived collages that were filling galleries at the time.

In the world of comics, Cawthorn was again ahead of the pack. His adaptation of The Jewel in the Skull for Savoy in 1978 was the UK's first homegrown graphic novel, a fact that was ignored during the crowing over terrible comic books in the late '80s when graphic novels gained a fleeting cachet in the style press. The introduction to its sequel, The Crystal and the Amulet, is the only one that Burne Hogarth provided for another artist.

Reviews of Cawthorn's work invariably emphasise the solidity and texture of his depictions. The understanding has been there from his earliest work that fantastic scenes are given their power not merely by the imagination on display but also by the degree to which they seem representations of authentic locations. Cawthorn's work, acknowledging predecessors such as Gustave Doré, gives physicality to the unreal and makes the imaginary seem possible. The wealth of invented machinery on display in the Hawkmoon volumes, machinery smelted in the white heat of Moorcock's writing, looks like it would operate efficiently enough in our world; those Ornithopters might actually fly. Decoration is always functional, never florid, armour looks as though it is there to serve a purpose. The buildings too have presence and mass; the unlikely conceit of a bridge across twenty miles of sea water becomes a realistic proposal in Cawthorn's depiction. This quality has been consistent; Cawthorn's Elric is never compromised by pointless detail or embroidery. Elric's world may be characterised by magic and chaos but Cawthorn reminds us that it is a flesh and blood world also. When blood is spilt he shows it, if people are naked he shows that too, naturally and without coyness. Cawthorn's work, like the paintings of Frank Frazetta, accumulates much of its power from what it leaves out as much as from what it depicts. Both artists concentrate on mass, form and movement and avoid the pitfalls evident in so much contemporary fantasy art: excessive detail, sterile photo-realism and appalling aesthetic choices, usually thefts from earlier periods of illustration made with little care or taste.

If these are Cawthorn's strengths, the areas he has worked in have generally regarded them as weaknesses. The very things he avoids are the things which make other artists popular. This syndrome is a familiar one and for a genuine artist doesn't bear much consideration. Artistic impulses run far deeper than contemporary mores and have to be followed whatever the climate. Cawthorn has always followed his impulses and remained true to his vision. Admirers of his work wouldn't want anything less.

John Coulthart

The Metal Monster

The Metal Monster (1962)
Illustration for the A Merritt story.

Against The Deeping Wall

Against the Deeping Wall (1962)
From Cawthorn's second Lord of the Rings portfolio. Aside from Tolkien's own illustrations, these stencil drawings of Cawthorn's are believed to be the first produced anywhere based on the novel.

How Many Miles to Babylon?

How Many Miles to Babylon?
A stencil copy of a nursery rhyme illustration by Mervyn Peake.


Illustration from Sword & Sorcery fanzine AMRA (1964).

Jewel in the Skull

The Jewel in the Skull (1978)
Double page spread from the adaptation of Moorcock's book,
the first UK-originated graphic novel published in Britain.


The Flame Bringers (1962)
First appearance of Moorcock's greatest character, Elric. Cawthorn's illustrations established the look from the outset.


Stormbringer (1965)
Original hardback of this brilliantly apocalyptic novel. Cawthorn's cover picture is the definitive portrait of the Albino.

The Chaos Ships

The Chaos Ships (1976)
From the large-format adaptation of Moorcock's Stormbringer.
Coloured by John Coulthart (1980).

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