John Berkey - He Helped Shape The Galaxy, But Never Saw The Film...
We are big fans of early sci-fi stories and for Christmas we were gifted a set of “STAR Science Fiction Stories”, books 1-6. Edited by acclaimed sci-fi editor Frederick J. Pohl and originally published from 1953 to 1959, our editions were from the 1972 re-printing and all had amazing space fantasy cover art.
With detailed planets and intricate spaceships, the cover of each book transported us to new off-world communities as man explored the stars. Checking the book’s credits, we found that they are all from the mind and paintbrush of one man, John Berkey.
Born in North Dakota in 1932, John Conrad Berkey studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and joined long-standing publishing company Brown & Bigelow, spending eight years producing calendar paintings of wholesome America.
Turning freelance, in the 1960’s he was commissioned by the NASA Art Program to capture the early days of space-exploration through the eyes of artists. Fellow contributors included Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.
It lead to a career in science fiction publishing, including the STAR series and books for sci-fi giants such as Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, and Philip K. Dick. (Along the way, he apparently turned down an offer from Stanley Kubrick to produce concept art for “2001: A Space Odyssey”.)
Looking at the covers of our STAR books, there were two that stopped us in our tracks.
Take STAR 3, is that a prototype tie-fighter or half a Bespin cloud skimmer in the lower-right corner? Perhaps.
Turning to the cover of STAR 4 from 1972, that has to be a Death Star!
In 1975, George Lucas purchased a number of Berkey’s works, using them as visual reference material to pitch his new movie to studios. The film? “The Star Wars”.
It is thought that these images, including one of a spaceship over a metal planet, inspired the work of Ralph McQuarrie and Star Wars model maker Colin Cantwell while working on the Death Star and many of the galaxy’s space-ships – the X and Y wing fighters, the TIE fighters and Imperial Cruisers among them.
Researching more of Berkey’s work, there is clearly a lineage between his naval-like star cruisers, bristling with antennae and the Imperial star-force.
Berkey also made his own direct contribution to Star Wars art. In 1976 he was commissioned by Lucas to produce several paintings in support of the film. One shows Luke, Leia, Vader and the film’s two robots, with a characteristic ‘Berkey background’ of the Death Star and soaring star ships set against an interstellar scene. It is a wonderful piece of art.
It would be used on the cover of the UK version of the film’s novelization, “Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker”. Our copy can be seen below.
A second painting shows the climactic space battle over the Death Star. It famously includes more than one Millennium Falcon (Berkey hadn’t seen the film) and was included as a poster within the ‘Star Wars Original Motion Picture Sound Track’ album.
Interviewed a few years before his 2008 death, Berkey said he was still “… yet to see Star Wars. I suppose I should see it one of these days.”
If he did, there is a lot he would have recognised.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.