Sci-Fi & Fantasy Art, Design, Illustration


History of Sci-Fi/Fantasy artist Rodney Matthews

History

(Written in 2000)


Biography

Rodney Matthews has worked as a freelance designer and illustrator of fantasy, science fiction and fairy tale as applied to record covers, book jackets and books (adult and children's), TV series, and video games for 30 years, and is acknowledged world-wide as being one of the top practitioners in these genres.

His originals have been exhibited at Britain's foremost illustrators gallery, the Chris Beetles Gallery in London's West End, while he has held one-man shows at the Langton Gallery, London, in Sierre, Switzerland, and in Cardiff and Machynlleth, Wales, with participation in many joint shows and signing sessions in the UK and Europe. Matthews' originals are owned by celebrities including Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones, who have 5 between them. Rodney has been in great demand for record cover design, having done more than 70 for artists including Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, Asia, The Scorpions, Barclay James Harvest, Magnum (10), and Rick Wakeman.

Over 80 of his designs have been published as poster prints, selling in millions world-wide. There have also been postcards, notecards, collector's cards, jigsaw puzzles (UK and US), limited edition prints, and of course his well known anthology books: 'In Search of Forever', 'Last Ship Home', and 'Countdown to Millennium', not forgetting the illustrated Michael Moorcock book 'Elric at the End of Time', and portfolios for 1990 and 1993. Some of his books have been published in French, German, and Japanese.

Other items include calendars, of which there have been a total of 15, an interactive CD-ROM 'Between Earth and the End of Time', a biographic video 'A House on the Rock', and work on video games. In 1998, a major children's animation series 'Lavender Castle' was completed. The original concept and all design was by Matthews, and the 26 x 10 minute episodes were produced by Gerry Anderson. It has subsequently become a favourite with British audiences, having received excellent reviews and ratings equalling Rugrats while in direct competition (more details can be found in the Showreel section).



History

Rodney Matthews was born at Paulton, north Somerset, England on 6th July 1945 to Wilfred Jack and Mildred May Matthews, and he has one sister, Beryl.

His father was an important influence on his early artistic development. Jack Matthews was an extremely artistic and inventive man. His activities included painting and drawing, cycle building and racing, drawing architectural plans and building houses, model making (working model locomotives, wartime ships and aircraft to raise money for wartime charities), first aid, photography and developing, drumming in dance bands, welding, engineering, and furniture making; a formidable list which Rodney does not try to compete with!

The first drawn images he can remember are a series of 30cm high copies of Walt Disney characters chasing each other around the living room walls of their council house. His father drew them in crayon, and they were to have a lasting influence on Rodney. His fascination with nature also began early in childhood. One of his earliest memories is of studying dew-laden spider webs in the garden, and in those days he was seldom seen without a bunch of flowers in his hand, even in his pram or going to bed at night. Another vivid memory from when he was too young to attend school, is of visiting an old lady down the road who had a house full of cats and allowed the budding Rodney Matthews to bring his paint box, where upon he would paint the peacocks depicted on a heavy cloth covering a huge round table in her parlour. This selfless fostering of young talent remains a slight but lingering mystery.

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Matthews' early education was decidedly unbalanced, he says, for while he excelled in art and related subjects, others like mathematics and English made a minimal impression on him. In art classes he preferred to be given a free rein rather than still life or composition exercises, and by choice painted strange machinery and animals.

Like most children, he enjoyed theatrical games and dressing up, and was lucky in having the use of his father's workshop where he could create weapons, armour, and costumes in various styles to be used in mock battles. Also, with friends, he built stone castles, mud huts, log cabins, underground hideouts, etc., according to the current trends. Matthews' interest in nature led him to build up quite a menagerie of squirrels, magpies, snakes, frogs, toads, etc. - something he now regrets, as the animals were probably less enthusiastic about it than he - but his love of nature continues and shows in his work, where he prefers drawing animals to people.

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On leaving school in 1959, he spent a short while working with his father who was then engaged in light engineering and wrought iron work, but did not find himself well suited to the work. In the first couple of weeks he almost took off a thumb in a lathe and hacked himself about with other implements, and in the end his father encouraged him to try and make use of his growing artistic talents. He was offered a job at the local printing factory retouching films and preparing images for platemaking and photography, but was not convinced that this was his vocation. Eventually in 1960, he applied for a place at the West of England College of Art, Bristol, and was accepted on the strength of a small portfolio of bird drawings in pencil. The course included the study of graphic design, lettering, still life, nude and costume life, and plant study. It was a commercial course designed for those intending to take up advertising.

At the West of England, Rodney Matthews was fortunate in having for a tutor Anthony Rossiter, the well known painter of English and particularly north Somerset landscapes. Rossiter's particular gift was for plant drawing and explaining to students how plants grew and formed. His maxim was: "If you don't understand it, take it apart and look at the inside".

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It was during Matthews' time at art college that he became interested in music from the point of view of the performer. There were a number of musicians there with whom he was acquainted and he has always considered that the two art forms, visuals and music, go well together. It is a fact that many artists and designers also play musical instruments, and vice versa. Rodney's father had owned two ancient '20s style drum kits, both of which he had assembled in the dining room at home, for the purpose of allowing inspection by prospective buyers. When one of the kits had been sold, Rodney asked if the other could remain in position for a while so that he could try his hand at what seemed like a short cut to the world of music. Not long after, some friends and he started to practice in earnest with a view to forming a band. Their rehearsal room - a poky cobweb-festooned den - was open to the elements at one window (a large hole produced by one of Matthews' inaccurate strokes in a game of cricket), allowing his pet doves to enter the room and nest in various nooks and crannies. The noise generated by the amplifiers was formidable in this tiny room, yet the doves sat in the rafters dozing or feeding their young completely unperturbed. They even seemed to like it, which was more than could be said for the neighbours. This coalition, however, did necessitate the cleaning of Matthews' cymbals before each practice session.

The walls of this room were decorated with (apart from the pictures of ladies who couldn't afford clothes) unkind caricatures of various members of the band, to keep them amused in idle moments. Amusement was also provided one evening by the roadie, 'Elmer', who, having gone into the village to fill up the 'group van' for the next gig, and having filled himself up at the Victoria Inn en-route to the rehearsal room, turned into the Matthews driveway at his usual break-neck speed just as Jock the village policeman was leaving on his motorbike (having just issued his umpteenth warning to the band for playing at a decibel rating far in excess of neighbours' tolerance). Jock was required to take immediate evasive action to avoid a collision, and careered down a steep bank into the Matthews shrubbery.

The band itself went through many incarnations: 'The Cheetahs', 'The Rhythm Kats', 'Pentworth's People', 'Originn', and finally 'Squidd', with Matthews playing drums, buying the beer, and writing most of the lyrics in the later stages. From 1963 until 1974 when they finally disbanded, the group had played many musical styles, but from 1969 onwards it was all original material. The band had played some legendary venues in the UK including the original Liverpool Cavern (made famous by the Beatles) and the Marquee in London's West End, with several TV appearances to their credit. They had also done supporting gigs with the likes of Cream, Eric Clapton's Derek & the Dominoes, Genesis, Yes, Manfred Mann, and many others.

In 1974, Matthews terminated his involvement with progressive rock to concentrate on his art. He had no regrets other than that now, the company he kept had become a little less colourful. He would miss the choice times like when the entire band had been rushed to hospital for the treatment of food poisoning while on tour. And then there was the 'group van'; that temperamental ship of the unwashed and flatulent, including the bass player who had become legendary for his timely displaying of his un-covered rear-end from the open side window of the van while cruising down a crowded city high street. He would also miss the little one-off moments like the one in which the guitarist fell out of the side door of the van at speed while attempting to relieve a full bladder. The Severn road bridge will remain memorable for that event.

Musical high spots of the era would have included the night when Rodney sat in for an absent drummer in Graham Bond's band at The Old Granary, Bristol (Bond was best known for having had Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Dick Hecstall-Smith in his original line-up). Another notable event was the time Matthews played three nights at The Metropole (which was then a jazz club) in New York city in 1965.

On leaving art college in 1962, Rodney Matthews took a job at Ford's Creative; a well established advertising agency in Bristol, England. He was given an 'apprenticeship', meaning a gentleman's agreement with low wages and no guarantees. His first job was to hand-letter the other artists' names onto their T-squares. Then, knowing he could handle a brush, they asked him to sweep the floor!

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However, things improved and he found a pleasant atmosphere amongst the other artists, with a minimum of interference from the directors. Rodney went on to learn the procedures for visualising, illustration, creative lettering, card construction, etc., and he learned about presentation and printing techniques.

In retrospect, Matthews is grateful for the disciplines he acquired at the agency, but at the time he felt his real creativity was being stifled. In his lunch hours he worked on private commissions; usually birds or dinosaurs in gouache or acrylic. He also became famous at the agency for his uncomplimentary caricatures of the management, and for hiding in the toilet when the supermarket window-bill jobs were being handed out!

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Matthews was involved with music in a secondary capacity while at Ford's Creative, and sometimes after a gig in some far-flung part of the country, he would return overnight to Bristol, having had little or no sleep, and go to work the next day only to fall asleep at the drawing board in his lunch break. He had received some commissions during the late '60s from outside sources while still employed at Ford's, including the Thin Lizzy 'New Day' E.P. cover. He did these jobs in the evenings, and it became increasingly clear to him that if he was to pursue a more creative career, he would have to go.

In 1970, Matthews left the advertising world to form an art partnership with Terry Brace, who was an acquaintance from art college days and had played in the same band (Barnaby Goode) for a while. The flexible arrangement of the partnership allowed Matthews to go off on gigs with the band, sometimes at short notice. Terry Brace was involved with the organization of entertainment at prominent Bristol rock venue The Old Granary, and used to have a say in which bands were featured there; embryonic versions of Genesis, King Crimson and Yes, and of course Brace or Matthews would design the posters appertaining to these events. The partnership was related to a music agency and the two businesses were given the name Plastic Dog (graphics and music agency). The name was a joke at first (family dog!), but eventually became official. Plastic Dog Graphics specialized in design for the music industry; everything from press ads to button badges to record covers, and what started as a company working mainly for local folk artists on the Village Thing label progressed to encompass internationally known artists via companies like United Artists Records, MCA Records, Sonet Records (Sweden), and Transatlantic Records. Rodney's first full colour LP cover design was for the German band Amon Düül II (Live in London). It was to be the first of many.

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During his time at Plastic Dog Graphics, Bristol, Matthews produced some rough colour sketches from J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' which caught the eye of Peter Ledeboer, boss of very successful international poster publishers 'Big O'. Ledeboer commissioned four works from Matthews which were subsequently published as posters, selling very well and lifting Matthews from obscurity at a stroke. The subjects were: 'The Last Armada', 'In Search of Forever', 'Warriors from the Sky', and 'Twelve Towers at Dawn'.

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The original version of the painting 'In Search of Forever' holds a special place in Rodney's affections because just as he was putting the finishing touches to it, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Plastic Dog studio and devastated it (Bristol, 1974). By a miracle, he was unharmed by the flying glass and wood, and the artwork too proved to be undamaged, though covered in debris. It was about this time that Matthews met the popular British sci-fi author Michael Moorcock, who immediately took to Matthews' work and requested of all his publishers that they commission him on a regular basis. This resulted in a long-standing working relationship which produced some classic work: many notable paperback and hardback covers, twelve poster designs used also as a calendar for 1978, an illustrated book 'Stormbringer' for Archival Press USA, and an illustrated book 'Elric at the End of Time' (Paper Tiger 19) which Moorcock wrote specifically for Matthews to illustrate and which included some Matthews ideas.

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Plastic Dog Graphics later became Skyline Studios for a while, with a change of premises, but was eventually dissolved in 1976, allowing Matthews to concentrate on the increasing demand for posters from Big O, and record cover designs. His first record commission under this new, completely freelance arrangement, was for the Nazareth album 'No Mean City' for Mountain Records. This was followed by a cover for Bo Hansson's record 'The Lord of the Rings', one which Rodney thoroughly enjoyed doing.

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In 1977, Matthews met Karin Drescher, also a painter and illustrator. They were married not long after and their son Yendor was born in 1980. This was a tumultuous year for Matthews in that also his father died and he became a committed Christian. Soon after in 1983 we start to see Christian imagery appearing in his work with the poster design 'Be Watchful'.

1985 saw the opening of a three-week one man show of Matthews originals at the Langton Gallery near Kings Road, London. This year also saw the Matthews family exodus to north Wales, and an area of great natural beauty just inside Snowdonia National Park. Some of his more tranquil pictures were painted here ('Stronghold', 'Rivendell', and 'The Walled Kingdom'), reflecting something of the local landscape; more rugged and mountainous than his native Somerset.

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The first designs for the Lavender Castle children's TV project were done in 1986 after Matthews made the acquaintance of Gerry Anderson at Bray Studios the previous year. Matthews and Anderson seemed to hit it off straight away and soon formulated plans for a stop-motion animation series. It was however another ten frustrating years before finance was found to make the show, by which time Matthews was almost at the point of giving up! At last in 1996 he commenced pre-production design and added several new characters to the cast. The series was finished by 1998 (costing about £2.5 million), and screened the following year on ITV (see the Showreel section).

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Two years before leaving the West Country, Matthews had been asked to join a friend's jazz band, The Milneberg Six. The transition from rock to jazz was an easy one for Rodney, owing to his familiarity to the genre through lessons he had taken years before from an accomplished jazz drummer. In any event, his favourite drummers were mostly from the world of American jazz: Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa (who's autograph he had managed to get in New York in 1965). Matthews reflected that the jazz musicians in The Milneberg Six were almost as eccentric as the rock musicians he had previously known. For example, the banjo player seemed unable to communicate without the use of expletives to at least a 50% ratio, and appeared to be 'all thumbs' until several pints of best bitter had passed his lips. Then there was the trumpet player who took great pains to blow the corresponding note on his instrument, then to proudly announce that someone in the band had just farted in B flat! This enlightenment usually came at packing up time. While living in north Wales Rodney has played in several jazz bands intermittently. He has also designed and constructed his own custom drum kit in fibreglass.

Over the years, Rodney Matthews has exhibited originals in various galleries and at signing sessions. One he fondly remembers was the End of Year Illustrators' Annual Show at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London in 1991, at which he sold three original works to none other than John Cleese. It was a most agreeable meeting for Matthews in that Cleese shares top spot with Spike Milligan in Rodney's funny-man ratings. John Cleese bought another Matthews original in 1993. Fellow Python Terry Jones also owns a Matthews original.

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Sometime in 1994, the British computer & console game development company Traveller's Tales asked Rodney to design them a logo. At the time of delivering the artwork to their premises he was introduced to a senior producer from the Liverpool based games publisher Psygnosis, who asked if he would be interested in designing a game for them. Matthews considered it over a pint in a nearby pub and agreed. The resulting game was 'Shadow Master', a shoot-'em-up for the Sony PlayStation and PC CD-ROM. Rodney has also done conceptual design drawings for 989 Studios, a developer based in San Diego, California. He currently has five or six projects being developed for presentation to prospective customers in his spare time, two of which are computer games, and three are children's animation shows for TV series or features (again, more details can be found in the Showreel section).



 

John Cleese

A video clip of Matthews, John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London 1993

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