Pulp in pictures

The pulp fiction publishing phenomenon of the 50s and 60s created its own visual language of femmes fatales and men of action. A new show celebrates the illustrators behind the covers and examines their enduring appeal

“A best-selling world where men were men, women voluptuous, good was good and bad was really evil.” Thus runs the blurb for Uncovered. illustrating the Sixties & Seventies, a new show at the Lever Gallery in London.

Renato Fratini. The Golden Rendezvous. 1964. Lever Gallery

The show brings together work from some of the leading pulp fiction cover illustrators of the time – all of them men, which should come as no surprise given the subject matter. This is a world of manly men with shoulder holsters and slacks, typically pictured standing moodily off behind a voluptuous woman wearing far less. While explosions erupt, and soldiers tear across a tropical beach, a young woman cowers attractively in some kind of non-military-issue mini-battledress: fully-dressed with Luger at the ready, a man casts a glance at an attractive woman emerging from a shower. You get the idea.

Michael Johnson, Tale of the Lazy Dog, c1970. Lever Gallery
Renato Fratini, The Snake, c1967. Lever Gallery
Renato Fratini, The Girl Hunters, 1967. Lever Gallery

As colour printing became cheaper in the late 50s and into the 60s, these lurid covers sold the promise of even more lurid tales within. At the top end, writers such as Mickey Spillane and Hammond Innes mixed escapism with hard-boiled thrills while, at the more salacious end of the market we find Twilight Gal, Sin Street and All Shades of Gay.

Through the 60s, the Gallery says, publishers found that the visual language of pulp could be successfully applied to more highbrow offerings. Novels from the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and CP Snow were even given the pup treatment in an effort to boost sales.

Michael Johnson, Woman in Silver Disc Swimsuit, 1967. Lever Gallery
Michael Johnson, Unknown, c1970. Lever Gallery

The Lever Gallery show features more than 40 rare works by some of the most in-demand illustrators of the period, including Gianluigi Coppola, Giorgio De Gaspari, Pino Dell’Orco, Renato Fratini, Michael Johnson, and Ian Robertson. As well as paperback covers, their work also appeared in women’s magazines who were introducing short stories to their pages.

Michael Johnson, Pink Woman, c1962. Lever Gallery
Michael Johnson, A Crowd Of Voices, 1961. Lever Gallery

By the 70s, such work began to die out as photography offered a cheaper and, it was thought, more ‘modern’ alternative for paperback publishers. But the work has since been rediscovered, with a knowing, ironic detachment, by a new generation of illustrators and designers. On Instagram, feeds such as pulpfictionlibrarian celebrate “good, bad and unintentionally funny” covers, while it’s easy to trace the style’s influence on a host of contemporary illustrators.

Renato Fratini, Lady in Blue, c1960s. Lever Gallery
Renato Fratini, The Twisted Thing, 1967. Lever Gallery

Uncovered. illustrating the Sixties & Seventies is at the Lever Gallery, 153 -157 Goswell Road, London EC1 until March 24


Milton Keynes