Ed Buckley  (1940-2021)

by Duncan Lunan

Ed Buckley with Scorpius mural, ASTRA rooms, Hamilton. 1971, photo by David Adams

From time to time in this column I’ve drawn on the work of Scottish space artists Gavin Roberts, Andy Paterson and Sydney Jordan, mostly from my own books.  But of them all, Glasgow-based Edmund David Buckley, who died on 25th August 2021, was one of the world’s finest space artists, though he kept his light mostly under a bushel and published little except for illustrating my books, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.

Ed was born on 13th November 1940, at St Francis Maternity Hospital on Merryland Street in Govan.  His parents were Percival Edmund Buckley, described at the time of Ed’s birth as a “ladies’ mantle cutter”, and Sarah Buckley, née McCann.  They were married on June 30th 1939, in Cathcart, and the parental home was 711 Cathcart Road.  Ed attended Calder Street Primary School and Queen’s Park Senior Secondary, leaving in 1958 with Highers in English and Art and a Lower in Geography.  He was one of four pupils from Queen’s Park Secondary sent on a Special Art Course at Castle Toward in 1958, run by the Glasgow Corporation Education Dept.  In Aug 1962 he had completed a 3-year evening course in Process Retouching at Stow College, and in 1962/63 he completed an evening course in Technical Illustration at the Glasgow School of Art, but gave up training as a commercial artist to look after his ailing mother, who died of cancer in 1967.

Mars Expedition over Deimos, 1960, ‘New Worlds for Old’ Plate 3

His interest in space and science fiction was stimulated by a visit to the Kelvingrove Museum in 1945, to see a German V1 and V2 captured at the end of World War 2, and he began painting on space themes after the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.  His early paintings featured space battles in comic-strip style, but they weren’t published until a Daily Mail story about him many years later.  While working shifts as a conductor on the Glasgow buses, he began more serious paintings such as ‘Mars Expedition over Deimos’  (1960), in oils, with amazing amounts of detail.  A few were on near-contemporary themes like the Blue Streak first stage of the Europa booster, but others included astronauts on moons of Jupiter, interstellar probes and starships in Earth orbit, and planets of a red dwarf, a red giant, and binary stars.  ‘Follow the Leader’, with an elephant-like creature in a bubble vehicle, was the first to feature non-terrestrial life.  Several of his interstellar paintings have featured in my recent ‘Fermi Paradox’ articles, some of them published for the first time.

Ed joined the Scottish branch of the British Interplanetary Society some time before March 1962, the year before it became independent as the Scottish spaceflight society ASTRA.  In December 1962, he introduced the topic ‘Born, Luna City, 2140 AD’ with ‘1967 or Earlier?’, a pen-and-ink study of the Lunar Module, plus sketches of lunar exploration and the first lunar base, a detailed diagram of the lunar city in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Earthlight, and ending in colour with ‘The Inheritance’, featuring the lunar capital of a Federation of Solar Worlds.  The first and last two of these were later published in my books New Worlds for Old  (1979)  and Man and the Planets  (1983). 

‘The Inheritance’, ‘Born, Luna City, 2140 AD’, 1964, bw in ‘Man & the Planets’, Plate 3

In summer 1967 Buckley and I formulated the Interstellar Project, a series of discussions leading eventually to my first book Man and the Stars  (1974), which began with ‘The first phase of interstellar colonisation, out to 12 light-years’.  He introduced preliminary artwork for it, as chalk drawings, at a Glasgow meeting in March 1970.  To meet the deadline for publication he began painting in acrylics, at the suggestion of Bill Davies, Principal Teacher of Art at Ayr Academy, meanwhile changing to a day job as a security guard at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. 

At the same time he created a mural of the star clouds in Scorpius for ASTRA’s first meeting rooms, at Peacock Cross in Hamilton.  Unfortunately the building was summarily demolished in February the following year, and only photographs remain.  In 1971 Buckley’s paintings were shown in public, first in an STV interview with the ASTRA Secretary and then at exhibitions in the ASTRA rooms.  In December 1971 his talk, ‘An Artist’s View of the Solar System’, featuring recent discoveries by Apollo 15 and by Mariner 9 over Mars, also predicted  (correctly) some of the discoveries to come with the Pioneer and Voyager missions to the outer planets.  This led to the Interplanetary Project which generated New Worlds for Old and Man and the Planets, with Ed sharing the honours as illustrator with Gavin Roberts, later Principal Teacher of Art at Airdrie Academy. 

‘Repair Job’, 1973

Black-and-white reproductions of three early paintings appeared in Beyond This Horizon, An Anthology of Science Fiction and Science Fact (Ceolfrith Arts – Sunderland Arts Centre, 1973), edited by Christopher Carrell, later Director of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre.  In July 1975 Buckley went with ASTRA members to the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission, which we watched from the VIP area before the Launch Control Centre, and we had a private tour of Kennedy Space Center a few days later, both by courtesy of Jeri Bell of NASA.

Ed Buckley display, Urban Spacemen, 90s Gallery, Glasgow, 1990

In April 1977 Buckley was elected ASTRA President, but resigned in April 1978, soon after a tour of US astronomical sites.  A display of his work appeared in ‘The High Frontier, a Decade of Space Research 1969-1979’, at the Third Eye Centre on Sauchiehall St.  (now the Centre for Contemporary Arts), in September-October 1979, where he gave his talk ‘Spaceships of the Pen’, repeated several times at science fiction conventions thereafter.  In April 1990 there was a display of his paintings old and new at the 90’s Gallery in Otago Street, in the ‘Urban Spacemen’ exhibition during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, and he also exhibited frequently at science fiction conventions.

Ed’s ‘Old and New Mars’ paintings from New Worlds for Old were reprinted in black-and-white in the Directory of Discarded Ideas  (1983), by Paul Barnett, aka John Grant, who had edited our two Solar System books.  David A. Hardy reproduced two early paintings and one from Man and the Planets in Visions of Space  (1989), and the New Worlds for Old cover painting was reproduced by the Slovenian editor Samo Resnik on the collection Fantazia  (Llubjana, 1990), but otherwise few if any of Buckley’s paintings have been published or reprinted even in book form.  Likewise, almost all magazine reproductions have been from the books along with articles of mine, in Spaceflight, Analog, Speculations in Science & Technology, Space Voyager, Space World, Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos and in Orkney News.  He also provided diagrams for my paper ‘Project Starseed’  (Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 1983), with further use in Man and the Planets, Incoming Asteroid  (2013), at the Space Manufacturing Conference in Princeton, 1985, and in amateur magazines such as Spacereport, Infinity, Asgard and Settlers’ Sentinel. ley

Everybody recalls how quiet he was, even withdrawn at times, and yet he wore colourful costumes to the masquerades at science fiction conventions, and his sense of humour was always in evidence, often unexpectedly.  When photo-ID badges were introduced at the Kelvingrove Gallery, and Ed considered them unnecessary, he wore a photo of Darth Vader for years on his badge.  Even when it was noticed, his colleagues would just say, “Oh, for God’s sake, Eddy”, and wave him on through. In a serious discussion of the A, B and C sites for the Viking Mars landers  (which we had seen in assembly at Kennedy Space Centre), he suddenly broke into, “I do like to be beside the C-site”.  And in an STV interview on his retirement, when he was asked if it was true that the Galleries were haunted, he replied solemnly, “Well, there were cases where people making final checks said they’d seen shadowy figures flitting from one gallery to the next – and the rest of us thought there might be spirits involved, right enough.”

Ed’s modesty about his art was one of the things which held him back, to the extent of turning down several offers of commissions in the 1970s and 80s, when, in my view, he was the best in the world in his field.  The previous masters like Chesley Bonestell, R.A. Smith and Fred Wolff had ceased work or were powering down, and other newer ones had still to hit their stride.  I was interviewed on the merits of space art in 1990 for a Belfast art magazine, by the late Matt Ewart of the 90’s Gallery, when they put on the ‘Urban Spacemen’ exhibition featuring Ed and other Scottish artists during the Year of Culture.  When Matt asked me how I would answer the charge that what we called ‘space art’ was mere illustration, I replied that it was like the difference between an ‘artist’s impression’ of a building and, say, Constable’s view of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.  The artist’s impression just gives you an idealised sketch taken from the architect’s drawings, bland and often misleading.  Whereas the Constable tries to communicate what it might feel like or mean to you if you were there and having that experience.  Similarly, artist’s impressions of spacecraft are ten a penny from NASA, but the Agency also runs a major art programme documenting the programme in the way that war artists record conflicts, trying to give the full sense of what it was really like to be there.

With Ed’s artwork for the book discussion projects, he would produce sketches, chalk drawings, and preliminary studies, going to great lengths to make sure he had captured other people’s ideas accurately before he depicted the visions that he himself gained from them.  As its title implies, one of the themes of New Worlds for Old was to show how different the Moon and the planets were from what had been expected, and although Gavin Roberts did some of the ‘new’ versions, Ed took delight in doing the ‘old’ ones and several of the contrasted pairs.  Yet those little offbeat touches kept creeping in.  In his ‘Old Venus’ painting, if you don’t look closely you might miss the giant crocodile hiding in the foreground reeds.  The ‘Old Mars’ painting depicts Ray Bradbury’s Mars, with crystal cities and canals – but the canals have trout in them.  In his ‘New Mars’ painting, based on surface photos by the Viking probes, something is brightly reflecting sunlight in the distance – and Ed wouldn’t tell anybody what it was.  There’s a similarly mysterious light on the night side of a planet, in Ed’s painting of a ‘world ship’, capable of colonising a planet in a single mission.  In another set of paintings, he had an astronaut photographing what appeared to be a door or a window in the side of the Martian moon Phobos – again not explained.  The most extreme example was his comet painting for New Worlds for Old, which you might take to be contemporary.  But it was explicitly captioned, ‘Earth passing through the tail of Halley’s Comet, 1910’  (as indeed it did), so whose is the spacecraft in the foreground?

Old Venus Ed Buckley, 1975, ‘New Worlds for Old’ Plate 4

Sometimes his imagination hit the nail right on the head.  One of the questions he raised in his talk ‘The Artist’s View of the Solar System’, was, ‘Why is Saturn the only gas giant planet with rings?’ He had given considerable thought to why the others might have rings which were hard to see from here.  As it turns out, Jupiter’s ring is narrow and close to the planet, as he suggested.  He also suggested that the rings of Uranus might be dark, chunky and diffuse, and they turned out to be dark, chunky and narrow – two right out of three.  A Soviet astronomer had suggested that Neptune might have a broken ring – Ed didn’t paint that, but he did show Neptune with bright cloud features, and its satellite Triton with sub-surface liquid, neither of which were known at the time but both of which turned out to be the case.  These predictions were what led the Daily Mail to do an article suggesting he was psychic, which he thought was nonsense but went along with – likewise with a very silly STV item on Scotland Today, portraying him as a classic artist working in a paint-smeared smock in a garret – quite unlike the meticulous, detailed work, often with a single-hair brush under a magnifying glass, which was characteristic of him.

His many contributions to the spaceflight and science-fiction scenes will be greatly missed, particularly in Scotland, although condolences have been coming in from further afield and particularly from London.

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