A Profile of John Batchelor MBE
|by Malcolm V. Lowe
Photo courtesy of Lockheed-Martin
| Our modern World is full of talented artists. They illustrate our existence with their skill and vision, their artistic talents and their eye for detail – and most important, their ability to communicate their message to the awe-inspired onlooker. Some of them have turned their talents in particular to the field of technical illustration, and amongst them are those who have become very accomplished in the representation of the beautiful products created by the human mind. You only have to look at the fantastic paintings of aircraft, automobiles and a host of other mechanical creations that grace magazines, book covers, posters and postage stamps, to appreciate the talents of this select but talented band of people. One of the finest exponents of this creative art is a British artist who can rightly lay claim to being at the moment the World’s most published artist. His name is John Batchelor, and his beautiful artwork graces the pages of many publications World-wide.
John’s work is truly global. In a career that has spanned some 40 years, his work has been published across the World in all five continents in a myriad of publications, journals and books. John’s work also graces postage stamps and fine ceramics, while his beautiful paintings (many accomplished on commission to individuals or associations) are a joy to behold. And this is all the more remarkable when one thinks that while still in his teens, John was actually turned down by an arts school in England! If ever there is an example of the so-called arts ‘establishment’ getting it totally wrong, this is it.
John can certainly lay claim to having been an accomplished artist all of his life. As a young child during the Second World War living in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex to the east of London (an area where much aerial fighting took place during that conflict), John drew the aerial ‘dogfights’ between British and German fighter planes that he witnessed first-hand. His earliest known work was drawn at the age of four-and-a-half years, in September 1940. Much of his early art was faithfully collected and saved for posterity by his proud mother, who was a fine judge of John’s talent as she realised from an early age where John’s true vocation lay. Nowhere in England was far away from a close military presence during World War Two and John often came across soldiers whose tanks and machine guns he started to draw with finesse. By around the age of seven years old he was able to strip down, clean and reassemble a .303in Lewis machine gun – and expertly draw all the parts that he had handled.
John spent his National Service during the 1950’s in Britain’s Royal Air Force. After that he came to have his first real jobs that involved drawing, when he worked in the technical publications section of some of the big names in Britain’s aviation industry – including the Bristol Aircraft Co. and Saunders-Roe Ltd. – at a time when Britain still had a thriving and vibrant aviation industry. One of his final jobs for Saunders-Roe was work on the plans for a projected nuclear-powered derivative of the beautiful but ultimately cancelled ten-engined Princess flying-boat.
It was in the early 1960’s that John embarked on a career as a freelance artist – the job that he continues to this day. Some of his earliest work after taking the decision to go it alone was for the Eagle boy’s paper. John remembers those early days with affection, together with his thrill at being paid for doing illustrations that he considered were a pleasure to create. To this day, John still marvels at the thought of being paid to do what for him is not a daily chore, but something that he thoroughly enjoys doing.
Since those freshman days in the early 1960’s, John has worked for a vast array of publishers World-wide. Early connections with Time-Life Books led to John illustrating major part-work series for this prestigious American publisher. Companies such as Ballantine and Dover Publications have all since featured his artwork. Other highly important jobs included John helping to originate and then illustrate a long-running series of paperback works on the weapons of the 20th Century’s major conflicts. This series, published in England by Purnell (but available World-wide) reached 10 million copies sold by 1976. To commemorate this massive achievement, the grateful publisher presented John with a very valuable solid silver model of a British Saladin armored car – the presentation was made by the famous British World War Two fighter ace Douglas Bader. The Purnell series eventually ran to almost 20 million copies sold, making John one of the most widely-published and well-loved military artists of his generation.
John’s home in the historic English town of Wimborne Minster near the south coast in southern England is a veritable archive that backs up his extensive knowledge of all things technical and man-made. He has approximately 2,500 books in his collection, plus numerous magazines, documents, maintenance manuals and historic photographs. There is a file for just about every aircraft, tank, motorcycle or car that you can care to name – and many of these files are stuffed full of clippings, pictures and other useful reference. But helpful though these sources are, John is very much a ‘hands-on’ illustrator. He likes nothing more than to be examining first-hand the aircraft, tank, car, gun, or other subject that he has been commissioned to illustrate. Sometimes he actually drives the tank that he is going to draw, or fires the gun that is the subject of his next illustration. It is this closeness to his subjects that helps to set John’s work apart from many other contemporary illustrators - where possible, the source material for an illustration is the very thing that he is set to draw. Often this close research gets John into some interesting places – like the time that he spent aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln, or his recent visit to the Lockheed Martin aircraft company to make a cutaway illustration of the West’s newest combat aircraft, the F-35 JSF.
John is also practically unique amongst current illustrators in that ALL his artwork is performed by hand – there is no room in his studio for a computer! Instead the tools of his trade are a pencil, a paintbrush – and the skill and experience to use this traditional equipment. Most usually John uses gouache (a kind of watercolor) for his illustrations, but he is sometimes commissioned to perform paintings in oils – and these are accomplished with the same flair and capability. Often this work is carried out to the sound of one of his great loves – jazz music of the 1920’s and 1930’s. For relaxation John is a fly fisherman of no small success – as well as being a cat lover of great dedication.
Like many well-known artists, John has exhibited his work widely. From small exhibitions in his home town to large shows in such far-flung places as Washington, D.C. and the Farnborough Air Show, John’s work has been seen by the widest of audiences. And he can lay claim to illustrating the pages of one of the World’s most widely-read magazines. With a monthly circulation of some 11 million readers, the American magazine Popular Mechanics has featured John’s work on such diverse subjects as the latest Russian jet fighter plane to new generations of Electromagnetic Pulse Bombs.
And yet this is not even the widest audience that John reaches. Since the mid-1980’s, he has been involved in the very specialised world of creating artwork for postage stamps. This is a very special area. Postage stamps are officially bullion of the country that creates them, and to become an artist who regularly provides artwork for postage stamps is a real privilege. John principally works with an organisation called Crown Agents and illustrates the postage stamps of many small countries in the British Commonwealth – in addition to larger countries around the Globe. In total, John has now illustrated postage stamps for some 49 countries. Usually the copyright to such very special pieces of artwork is retained by the agency or countries who commission the artwork, but John has been careful over the years to retain where possible his own copyright for his artwork. His back catalogue because of this is enormous – and his home is full of original pieces of his artwork which stretch back many years.
John thankfully and cheerfully says that he will never retire. One of his latest ventures is to start up a publishing company with a long-standing colleague in the south of England which will selectively publish some of his existing pieces of artwork – alongside many new and as yet to be created paintings. Called Publishing Solutions (WWW) Ltd., this new venture into the publishing world released its first book late in 2003 – with text alongside John’s artwork written by the author of this profile. It is best to let John sum up his fantastic work and his successful career in his own words – “I love mechanical things and I love drawing and somehow I have put the two together to make a living, who could be luckier?”
Design Annual, Award of Excellence
American Institute of Graphic Arts, Certificate of Excellence
Society of Illustrators, Certificate for Merit
Art Directors Club, Gold Award