Earlier this year, the light of one of the most flamboyant graphic stars of the 1960s was extinguished with the death of Alan Aldridge. But he left behind an astonishing array of mind-blowing work, born out of that special, psychedelic, drug-induced era of the 1960s.
But perhaps few know that many of Alan Aldridge’s wild imaginings were in a large part brought to life by Harry Willock: a man ten years Aldridge’s senior who spent three decades behind the scenes quietly beavering away.
Born in West Bromwich in 1934, Harry Willock was a rather shy, lonely boy who spent most of his time drawing at home and at infant school. His ability was later recognised by a teacher when at secondary school, who suggested that he apply for art school. This led him to Ryland School, where he studied commercial art for two years.
At Ryland’s end-of-year art exhibition, a local businessman spotted some of Harry’s work and offered him an apprenticeship at his printing firm Kendrick and Jefferson. It specialised in bespoke stationery. At age 17, Harry joined the company and systematically worked his way through the different craft disciplines under the eagle eye of his boss, who was a stickler for perfection. A quick learner, Harry mastered line drawing, hand lettering, scraperboard illustration and airbrushing.
Above two examples of Harry Willock's scraperboard mastery.
1952, Harry in army uniform at the drawing board.
A year later, he had to break off for compulsory National Service. He was first attached to the Royal Engineers and, after some cajoling, he managed to get transferred to the mapmaking section of the Worcester Military Survey, where he would often find himself in mobile darkrooms learning the tricky art of reversed writing, directly onto film negatives.
Harry seated centre, with staff members at The Sunday Times Marketing Division around 1960.
After completing his two-year army stint, he returned to Civvy Street and slotted back into his original job at Kendrick and Jefferson. But he soon became rather frustrated and, in 1959, through a fluke, he managed to get a job in London with The Sunday Times’ Marketing Division. He was disappointed at first, due to the lack of much to do, but that was to all change when Lord Thompson took over the publication and shook things up. This gave Harry a greater opportunity to show his array of craft-based talents. At one point, he was asked if he would like to be considered for the post of studio manager, but telling people what to do wasn’t in Harry’s nature and he much preferred to be on the ‘drawing board’ doing what he knew and loved.
In 1964, a gangly young man sporting dyed-blond hair joined The Sunday Times’ Promotions Department. His name was Alan Aldridge, and little did Harry know that he would become inextricably linked with this eccentric-looking character for almost three decades.
Alan had a seemingly never-ending stream of fresh and varied wild ideas but often with the inability to craft them into life. But having seen some of Harry’s amazingly exacting work, he quickly realised that together they could make the perfect partnership to realise his imaginings. Another staffer in the Promotion Department was John Gorham (later to develop as a supreme talent himself). Harry recalls that John and Alan would often go to the pub after work and enthusiastically talk about all aspects of design. They would zero in on one of the Promotion Department’s projects that needed cracking. After the bell for last orders was rung, they would go their separate ways. The next day, Gorham would arrive still feeling a little jaded but would be astonished by Alan firing on all cylinders, bristling with a plethora of ideas he would have dreamt up overnight.
Two examples of Alan Aldridge Penguin covers prior his collaboration with Harry Willock. Top shows Aldridge working within the confines of Penguin's cover grid styling.
In 1965, Alan left The Sunday Times, having secured himself a new job via Germano Facetti at Penguin Books, at the time located in a house on John Street, Bloomsbury. At first, Chief Editor Tony Godwin, a Penguin long-termer with wide-ranging experience and knowledge of selling who was always on the lookout, employed him as an in-house designer for new ways of presenting covers. Alan’s early Penguin covers had to slot within the carefully controlled house grid styling created by Romek Marber in 1962 for the then overall Art Director Facetti. Alan found this very restrictive and at odds with his view of design. Tony Godwin had been promoted to perk up Penguin’s sales due to increasing pressure from other paperback imprints like Pan, Corgi and Fontana. As part of his new strategy, Godwin got Alan to produce some experimental fiction covers, freeing him from the carefully controlled cover house style. The story goes that at a Penguin sales meeting at which some of the new experiments were floated, and received well, Alan fielded the idea (with Godwin’s backing) that he should take over the art directorship of all fiction covers, much to the displeasure of Germano Facetti. But it was agreed and, apparently, Facetti never spoke to Alan again.
Now with a lot on his plate, Alan persuaded Harry, still at The Sunday Times, to join him at Penguin, where they began their partnership in earnest. In addition to commissioning covers from external artists, designers and photographers, Alan would design a lot of covers himself. An example of an Aldridge/Willock collaboration can be seen in Penguin’s science fiction series. Alan would come up with the idea, create a basic skeletal drawing and then hand it over to Harry to unleash his airbrush. As can be seen, Alan’s own drawing style had an almost childlike naivety at the time: something that would evolve as his and Harry’s partnership matured.
Three examples of Aldridge's covers with the addition of Harry Willock's magic airbrush. All from 1967.
Soon, Penguin fiction covers were making waves, and approaches of work from outside for Alan were coming thick and fast. So began a lot of moonlighting for both Alan and Harry while at Penguin. This didn’t fit comfortably with Harry, as he was of that earlier generation where modesty and loyalty were the norms. As a long-term print trade union man, doing an honest day’s work for your employer was in his blood. Conversely, Alan was very much a child of the swinging sixties, where success and fame went hand in hand.
An example of an Aldridge and Willock moonlighting project for rival paperback house Panther 1967.
And the Who's A Quick One album cover 1966
Harry undertook the design of the Allen Lane hardback books solo.
Meanwhile, there were boardroom rumblings. Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, was very unhappy with the change of direction in cover presentation masterminded by Tony Godwin in league with Aldridge. Lane said, in a pointed remark at the time, “A book is not a tin of beans”.
The situation became exacerbated when Alan turned up for work with prison bars painted on the lenses of his round Lennon-style specs. Lane took this as a personal affront and set about planning to have Alan transferred to Penguin’s offices at Harmondsworth, out of harm’s way. Godwin saw the writing on the wall and resigned in 1967. This was shortly followed by Alan’s own departure, who by this time had external commissions from many quarters, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, making it possible for both him and Harry to embark on a new enterprise, shortly following Goodwin’s departure.
In part two. The rise and rise of Aldridge and Willock coming soon.