(Above) Brigid Bradley with Sci-Fi Fantasy Sketch, by Norman Partridge.
Curator's Choice: In her own words... Brigid Bradley of Croydon Museum explains the strange allure of Sci-Fi Fantasy Sketch, a preparatory watercolour by local illustrator and artist Norman Partridge, which starred in the Museum's 2009 Scene Unseen exhibition.
"It’s a preparatory sketch for a bigger painting by Croydon artist and professional illustrator Norman Partridge called Sci-fi Fantasy Sketch. It was done in 1953 so it is set against the backdrop of the Cold War and is full of aliens attacking earth, scientists in laboratories and stuff like that.
Partridge died in 2003 and throughout most of his career he was drawing and designing advertising posters. During World War Two he worked for the National Savings Bank. He also did quite a few specific Croydon pieces, which we have in the collection, including a massive painting called Croydon Courageous, which is a montage of rescue workers, air raid wardens and different kinds of people who would have helped during the war.
It shows how Croydon pulled together despite all of the wreckage and bombing. It’s on permanent display and I think everyone who’s ever been to Croydon Museum remembers it.
Like Croydon Courageous, Sci-fi Fantasy Sketch is a montage. The key re-occurring images in it are aliens, spaceships, scientists and mobs of people. The aliens are attacking in spaceships and scientists are frantically working in their laboratories as cities burn.
(above) Norman Partidge, Sci-Fi Fantasy Sketch, 1953. Courtesy Croydon Museum
The really bizarre thing is how in the midst of it all there are various groups of scantily clad women on different planets. It’s really odd and intriguing and I’m not sure what it means or what he’s trying to say – but at least it’s not all doom and gloom – these women add a kind of jolly, saviour-like element.
We know that Partridge was really into his sci-fi and used to draw a lot of covers for sci-fi magazines. In an oral history recording we have of him he talks about Sci-Fi Fantasy and how it was influenced by the vibrant science fiction climate of the time. The finished painting went on show at a science fiction convention at Westminster Central Hall but it didn’t sell. I don’t know what happened to it - it’s out there somewhere and I think it’s probably huge – as big as Croydon Courageous.
When I first looked at it I thought it was meant to be satirical but actually I’m not sure it is. Partridge did say it was influenced by the doomsday atmosphere of the time but that he was also really interested in this idea of life on other planets – he was really taken by that.
Norman Partidge, Sci-Fi Fantasy Sketch, 1953 (detail). Courtesy Croydon Museum
I think it fits very well into the whole industry and culture surrounding the hotting-up of the Cold War, the Space Race and the idea of the ‘other’. Much of 1950s culture portrays the human race as victimised and at the mercy of mysterious and hostile forces. You can also see how it was inspired by the hysteria portrayed in films like The Blob and the images of panic-stricken people running away from these unidentified 'others'.
I don’t know if the aliens are meant to represent Soviet Russians, but it’s interesting that there is a bit of Russian writing in the corner of the picture. There are also images of men dressed in suits who look like politicians and there are soldiers. In one corner is a spaceship with a scientist hanging on to the top of it carrying something that says atom.
Even though this piece is a prep sketch it’s so intricately drawn that every time I look at it I see something else I’ve not noticed before.
Norman Partidge, Sci-fi Fantasy Sketch, 1953 (detail). Courtesy Croydon Museum
It’s very Dan Dare and very colourful and it makes me think of Dr Strangelove and mad scientists running around trying to blow up the world. But while it looks cool and it’s a lively piece, the threat of nuclear war for people living at that time was very real. I think that’s kind of sobering really."