J. Allen St. John

It is not my intention to fill my blog with science fiction and fantasy art of the first half of the 20th Century but, having blogged recently about Hannes Bok, I was reminded of some of his contemporaries. Here is one of them, and why I think he is important.

J. Allen St. John, original painting for the front cover of At the Earth's Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1922

J. Allen St. John, original painting for the front cover of At the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1922

Today’s fantastic art can be weak and hard to swallow. In the old days, magazine and book covers were bright and loud, fighting for attention on the shelves in newsstands and bookstores. A wise artist knew that printing never quite caught the colors as they were, so they made their originals even brighter, to compensate. This garishness carried over long after refinements in printing and the changing state of publishing made these habits redundant. As a result:a lot of overly colored art.

Cover to Weird Tales magazine, October 1936. St. John not only painted the art, he also designed the magazine's classic logo.

Cover to Weird Tales magazine, October 1936. St. John not only painted the art, he also designed the magazine’s classic logo.

When art did evolve, it didn’t always do so in a good way. Look at the average sword-and-sorcery novel, and you are likely to see a bodybuilder in a leather loincloth, or something like a bikini if she’s a woman, heavily muscled and oiled, seemingly pasted onto a background that has little to relate it to the figures. A sharp contrast can be seen between the covers for Doc Savage magazine in the 1930s and 40s, and James Bama’s covers for the Bantam Books reprints of the stories, which began in the 1960s. Ol’ Doc seems to have either been hitting the steroids, or he is actually the Incredible Hulk. I won’t comment on the odd helmet of hair Bama gives him.

As much as fans adore many of these modern artists – the late Frank Frazetta especially – I have to relegate them to second-rank status. First and always foremost was J. Allen St. John, who was the first to illustrate many of Edgar Rice Burrough’s books, and has never been equalled.

Jacket to Tarzan at the Earth's Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published 1930 (this image if of a later reprint)

Jacket to Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published 1930 (this image if of a later reprint)

A quick glance at the examples on this page gives plentiful evidence. Nowhere is there the discontinuity between foreground and background, as when a modern artist works from a model or photograph and then makes up the surroundings – I see this often in the works of artists like Boris Vallejo. St. John’s figures are muscular in the way that ordinary people doing hard work are muscular, not in the bodybuilder way. St. John’s sense of motion gives his work an added excitement; never do his figures seem posed in battle, they seem to be captured, the way a documentary photograph does. St. John’s studies in New York and Paris served him well, and helped bring a little extra touch of refinement to the rough and tumble world of pulp magazine art. He even wrote a “faerie tale” entitled The Face in the Pool, in 1905, which has a rather old-fashioned quality to it, very much in the Victorian-era vein. Go here to see his illustrations for the book.

Drawing for Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, 1918

Drawing for Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, 1918

We have entered a period where science fiction and fantasy have become more mainstream than ever. I believe in setting bar high, and asking the same of artists working in those genres. A fantasy artist who has not studied St. John is an artist not quite yet ready for the big time.

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