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An Interview with Brian Sanders

Illustration is an art that ebbs and flows with the times, but never really goes out of style. Since the late fifties, Brian Sanders has been at the forefront of the illustration industry in London and the rest of the world. From his early “kitchen sink” commissions with Home and Gardens, to pioneering the Bubble and Streak technique, Brian Sanders is a veteran of the golden age of magazine illustrations, whose far-reaching influence today is undeniable. 

In the midst of his latest exhibition at the Lever Gallery,
Brian Sanders; Selected Illustrations From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Mad Men, we discover Brian Sanders and his colourful career. We discuss his early work assisting Adrian Flowers, his commissions with Joy Hannington, the creative hub that is Artist Partners, and his rare peek into the world of elusive film-maker Stanley Kubrick. As we go through the gallery, and through the vast collection of his off-kilter yet knowingly masterful illustrations, it becomes clear that Brian Sanders, self-proclaimed workman artist, is one of the most important contemporary illustrators of our time. 

You came back to London in 1959 and assisted the legendary Adrian Flowers, illustrating backgrounds for shoots with icons like Vanessa Redgrave and Twiggy. What was it like returning to London and starting out as a young illustrator? 

I returned to London after my time with the Royal Marines. Unfortunately I had no specimens and I went to work for Adrian Flowers, who helped me by letting me paint backgrounds and things like that. He allowed me to work in his studio in Chelsea; and I worked most evenings while putting my portfolio together. Out of all the work I did, I selected the best twelve pieces and went freelance. It took a little while to get my feet up. 

In the swinging sixties, Magazine illustration was at an all time high — some of your editorial work was featured in The Sunday Times, The Observer , etc. How would you describe the illustration community of that era? 

Joy Hannington, Art Editor of Homes and Gardens gave me terrific amounts of work; and she took a chance on me. The first story she gave me was a kitchen sink drama called Red Geraniums, and after that she gave me some romantic themes to try; it was terrific to try and she was wonderful to work for. I worked quite closely with a lot of illustrators and with Artist Partners who was my agent; as an agency we bounced off each other and a lot of it was like being in art school. We critiqued each others’ work; and because we were a small group, we modelled for each and stuff like that. It wasn’t competitive or anything like that, but more of a supportive creative community. 

The Bubble and Streak effect was inspired by the works of several American Illustration Masters such as Joe DeMers and Bernie Fuchs. In what other ways have you been inspired by American illustrators? 

I regularly read magazines that came from the States, there were so many great art directors who used very good illustrators and I learned a lot from them. I was pretty young and very interested to learn, so I found more  magazines to look at in America. My great friend Wilson McLean, who went to the States and had been working there at the time, sent me my first set of acrylics which weren’t yet available in the UK - and that’s when it all happened. We were trying to imitate what the Americans were doing, and the bubble and streak effect was key in that. 

In 1973 you were at the forefront of the creation of the Association of Illustrators, and then joined the Central Illustration Agency in 1985 - How do you think these organisations changed the illustration industry? 

We originally set up the Association of Illustrators to try and get our originals back from work that we had done. We couldn't see why, when something had been commissioned, that the artist couldn’t keep his original. Commissions pay for reproductions of your work, and not to have the original hanging on someone’s wall. I think what immediately happened was, the industry was retaliating by making new order forms to try and overcome the fact that we were asking for more. I represented the Association of Illustrators on the level of copyright contracts with the Whitford Committee on Copyright, and we learned that unless we signed over the rights of the originals they would remain ours. The big problem was that they made you sign the back of the check to actually trick you into giving them everything. I always refused to do that and nobody ever argued with me about it. 

You were commissioned by the elusive Stanley Kubrick to illustrate the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. What was this experience like? 

It was an amazing experience. Could you imagine being given free hand to do a drawing that you wanted to make with one of the greatest filmmakers of our time? He allowed me to go behind the scenes, and I went on set two days a week, then went back to my studio to draw what I saw. Whether it was a collage or a larger drawing, Stanley gave me absolute freedom to do what I wanted. I never even knew what they were for! Those drawings were never even published, only two pieces were published and only by accident. And the originals? We don't know where they are to this day.

With a decades spanning career, how do you think the illustration industry has changed over the years? 
It changes all the time, it almost ceased to exist after the mid seventies didn't it? I was very lucky at that time, because my work was all on transparencies; and one day the Royal Mail saw my work and called me in. I showed them the transparencies and they assumed that was the size that I’ve worked with,  of course I didn’t. They gave me a set of stamps to try immediately, those days you were always in competition, and I did it. However it wasn’t always smooth, all this was before feminism really got going and I was working with women artists. At this point the Royal Mail more or less said goodbye — and that was nearly the end of me ever doing stamps again. They came back to me a month later and I decided go with them, which  led to the next set of stamps and somehow during the next years, I didn't do almost anything but stamps. The Americans made covers with the stamps I’ve done and offered me the opportunity to do stamps for the Marshall Island where I did the history of WW2 on postage stamps. Then, I went from tiny little drawings to huge watercolour paintings of the Queen. My work then wasn’t really seen here in the UK, so it didn't take off very well in those days, but they kept giving me more and more stamps to make.

Tell us about your new exhibition at The Lever Gallery - Brian Sanders: Selected Illustrations? 

It’s a lovely experience. I’m surrounded by the warmth of friends, of children, grandchildren, and it seems to have gone very well. We've had some very nice reviews, and the GQ interview is magnificent,and came as somewhat of a surprise to me. The exhibition is really representative of only the first 10 years of any success that I've had at that time. I was only doing 2 pieces a week at the time, and I did a heck of a lot more work than that. I'm very pleased with the results and I thought it looked smashing.

Finally, How you think creators like yourself have changed the London art scene?

I don’t think it’s enclosed on fine art as I don't think of myself as a painter. I'm a workman artist and I don't know what the difference really is between illustration and painting. I suppose it’s because we illustrate people’s needs whereas painters paint for themselves. It’s always interesting because some of the collages I did, for Kubrick for instance, are not drawn through order; they are what came from me. Young people come to me and ask “How do you do bubble and streak?” and they interpret these techniques on screen which is wonderful! I think I've been involved in education at one point and it’s always choosing to help people do their own work and trying to help them.

Words by Hannah Tan