Remembering Peter Elson
10 Mar 2021
Reading Time: 3 minutes
There was a time when one frequently walked into a bookshop (of which there were plenty) to browse the shelves for a new book to read. And when you were a sci-fi fan in your early-ish teens, the covers were what initially caught your attention, because, you know, there was no internet for getting reviews… or unwanted opinions. As such, book covers in some way were a gauge of the author’s quality – the chances were if the illustrator was one of the ‘stars’, more often than not the book was worth reading… a theory that was only about 75% successful.
Having been a fan of Foss for many years prior to reading becoming a regular habit, then getting into gaming, great science fiction illustration was nothing foreign to me. My shelves were full of books, games, whatever. So when I walked into bookshops, I was always drawn to the books that had standout illustrations gracing their covers.
Enter Peter Elson.
I can’t remember the exact point I was introduced to Elson’s illustration work but I suspect it was through ‘Great Space Battles’, one of the epic volumes of the Terran Trade Authority series. Hidden in the pages of this now legendary book were many of Elson’s illustrations that I remember pouring over.
But it was not until some later point when I was reading paperbacks regularly, that Elson’s work started to hit home, namely through two particular series – Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ series then, Harry Harrison’s ‘The Stainless Steel Rat’. Both legendary, if not a little pulpy, they were (are?) fun reading and at the time cheap to buy; probably because they were quite small books. What really stood out to me at the time, enough for me to buy the first book of each series, was they had covers by Elson; I became a solid fan of his work, as the covers looked like nothing else on the shelves.
Elson’s career overlapped Foss’ later period in the late 70’s and early 80’s, so I have no doubt that he, like most at the time, was influenced by Foss. But Elson’s work made no attempt to copy Foss, unlike many others. Rather he seemed to take his work somewhere different, with crisp lines and vibrant colours. Even when depicting conflict, Elson’s images were optimistic, bright, and full of fantastic, dynamic designs and vistas.
Elson’s visions of the future were human scale which drew you in unlike, dare I say it, Foss’ which were, and still are, monolithic, almost unapproachable. In more ways than I can think, Elson’s illustrations more or less ushered in a more modern interpretation, of science fiction, his hardware full of part lines, decals and the ability to convey a feeling of… ‘touchability’.
Unfortunately Peter Elson passed away in 1998 at the age of 52 in relative obscurity; despite having produced hundreds of images. Unlike his contemporaries, most of which are still active, he did not move into digital at a time when publishers wanted the new and shiny kid on the block. So without the fame, hence staying power someone such as Foss enjoyed, many today may recognise Elson’s work but not know much about him, or even who he was. A massive shame considering his lasting influence.
The only published compilation of Elson’s work to date was a book titled ‘Parallel Lines’, a joint compilation of Elson’s and Chris Moore’s work. Like most of the Dragon’s Dream publications today though, it’s difficult and expensive to find, but if you do come across a copy, I can vouch it’s a purchase worth making. Apart from that, a website cataloguing his work has been established, where you can view a large amount of the work he produced.
Copyright 2023 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.