“I have … a terrible need … shall I say the word? … of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.”
- Vincent van Gogh
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;”
- Locksley Hall, Alfred Tennyson
The history books will tell you that Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard were the first men in space from their respective countries, and so they were. But in a figurative sense there were others who got there first: artists who transported themselves into space through the power of their imaginations, depicting – in extraordinary detail – worlds within our own solar system that are still waiting to be explored today. One of these early pioneers, and perhaps the most influential, was Chesley Bonestell.
If Bonestell had “only” painted those startling covers for Collier’s magazine he would still be famous; but this quiet unassuming man did so much more, mapping out a vision of the future that was (and still is) both prescient and nostalgic. It’s tempting to believe that somewhere in another time-line those paintings depict real scenes, actual moon landings and polar-like treks across alien caldera. And then, of course, there are the emblematic rocket ships, the great silver spires that still speak of conquest and expansion into a new frontier. For most BIS members these paintings evoke a heartfelt wish for what might have been, an expression along the lines of “If only.”
In essence, Bonestell was as much an adventurer as he was an artist; he was out exploring our local planets long before the space probes glided silently into their carefully predicted orbits; and these explorations – these journeys of the mind – have since been taken up by other artists, such as David A. Hardy and Adrian Mann (both Members of the modern-day BIS). “Have paint brush will travel,” is their maxim; though these days the paint brush is more likeley to be electronic and virtual rather than composed of more traditional materials. And when these pioneer painters do travel, it is to other worlds and even to other star systems, as they search for locations beyond the reach of most telescopes. Each composition is like a door opening in a darkened room; suddenly there is a view full of light, vast perspectives and heroic endeavours speaking of a Golden Age of space exploration. And for many of us these scenes are as close as we will ever be to these far flung domains.
The distinguished lineage which links David A. Hardy and Adrian Mann to Chesley Bonestell also encompasses the work of R.A. Smith. Much of the power inherent in the Society’s famous maxim is derived from Smith’s resonating paintings, many of which seem to depict scenes from an alternative history of space travel, one we never quite managed to achieve. These startling renditions of the future can still be seen on the walls of the BIS H/Q in London, and do much to contribute to the building’s distinctive atmosphere. They call to mind an almost Edwardian age of intrepid exploration, an era personified by the likes of Professor Cavor in H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon.
One of the real pleasures of spending time in the BIS archive is that you never know what you’re going to find. There are many files and boxes that haven’t been opened for years. On inspection they occasionally reveal gems such as the photos featured in this article.
The British engineer and space visionary Eric Burgess will be familiar to those who follow the Odyssey posts on the BIS website. In one of the pictures on this webpage Eric can be seen awarding the Society’s Bronze Medal to Chesley Bonestell. The BIS is the only place where the original copy of this photo can be found. Like Chesley Bonestell’s paintings, the archive is unique and priceless. And like the scenes depicted in Bonestell’s paintings, it is a place worth travelling to and exploring.
Mark Stewart, FBIS
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian/Editor (Odyssey)