In Memoriam: John Berkey
I just learned from the blog of Irene Gallo, the art director for Tor Books, that the illustrative artist John Berkey has died. Irene mentions something about him being in poor health in recent years, but so far, I haven't been able to find any further details about his age or cause of death.
Berkey is probably best known for painting some of the very earliest pieces of promotional art associated with Star Wars -- the image above was a poster concept for the movie, which ended up instead becoming the iconic cover of the film's novelization -- but his work was pretty commonly seen on all kinds of books and posters in the late '70s and early '80s, and it was a big influence on my developing sense of aesthetics. Several of his paintings still live in my memory; when I read of his death, I instantly recalled an image of his that appeared on Navy recruitment posters throughout my high school and early college years, and also this painting,which was the cover of a National Geographic coffee-table book called Our Universe. A friend of mine owned a copy of that book; as I recall, I borrowed it several times, but about all I remember about it now was that awesome cover painting.
Berkey's work was more impressionistic than realistic, but one of the things it always conveyed was a true sense of mass. His starships and ocean-going craft and floating cities always felt huge and immensely powerful. It was a perfect style for the time of its greatest popularity, when Star Wars, with its mile-long Star Destroyers and moon-sized Death Star, set the tone for so much science fiction.
I don't recall seeing any new work from Berkey in years, and I don't know if that's because he's been ill or otherwise not working, or if his stuff just fell out of fashion. I rediscovered him a few years ago when I ran across a used art book at Sammy's, and I spent several days marveling at how many of his paintings were familiar, and how much I still like them. That Star Wars piece above, for the record, is one of my favorites out of the hundreds of Original Trilogy-related paintings produced over the years; this companion piece is, too, even if it inaccurately depicts several Corellian YT-1300 light freighters at the Battle of Yavin, rather than just the one we all know actually was there...