Tuesday, January 16, 2024

John Polgreen's Space Paintings of the 1950s


Above: a gatefold airbrush illustration by John Polgreen from "Space Pilots" by Willy Ley.


This all started when my YouTube feed gave me a commercial for Sugar Jets cereal. I don't know why the video was there, but I guess I watch enough old What's My Line? and Star Trek videos that the algorithm pointed me toward a 1950s General Mills cereal ad for this. "Like a three-stage rocket, Sugar Jets give you three-way energy," which include oats, wheat, and sugar for"the power to take off."

By sending in a boxtop and some hard cash, you could get a couple of Wille Ley's books:
"Man-Made Satellites" and "Space Pilots." Each has a cool cover and interior art by John Polgreen (1910-1970).

Willy Ley (1906 - 1969):

"Willy Otto Oskar Ley was a German and American science writer and proponent of cryptozoology. The crater Ley on the far side of the Moon is named in his honor." - Wikipedia


There were even Willy Ley future space vehicle models that one could build. See? There he is in the corner, showing the kid that this could be in his future.


The Smithsonian has a terrific interview with Ley's biographer:

"In his new book, Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age, Jared Buss uncovers the life of Willy Ley, an amateur rocketeer who in 1935 fled Nazi Germany for England, eventually settling in the United States, where he became a successful science writer and popularizer of the U.S. space program."

His books, along with paintings of what the future might look like by John Polgreen and Chesley Bonestell, were optimistic and inspiring to a lot of people growing up in post-war America.

But it was the paintings that you lingered over. 

John Sisson, whose Dreams of Space blog is a wonderful place to browse, is a particular fan of John Polgreen's paintings:

"John Polgreen's space art is astonishing. He has a dreamy air-brush style that is part of the core memories of a lot of 1950s kids."

His smooth retro futurism is a romantic picture of, to quote Walt Kelly, "the will be that was." It's dream of a peaceful adventure into the future inspired a generation. Here are just a few samples of John Polgreen's work.


Smurfswacker said...

Do these ever bring back memories! As a space-happy kid I scarfed Sugar Jets and had Mom send for the books. Along with Bonestell's paintings in a second-hand copy of The Exploration of Mars Polgreen's pictures were burnt into my brain as the way real spaceships should look. Never got one of the Orbital Rocket kits--a friend had one--but I built the Space Taxi with its cages on either end to prevent stuff floating off into space. Great stuff despite the dentist bills.

DBenson said...

Unnecessary note: I remember seeing the Space Taxi model on a local kid show called Hobby Masters in the very early 60s (my age was in single digit). Somehow I conflated it with the magnetic space coup in Dick Tracy and kept expecting the strip to show a version with those cages at each end. It should be remembered that Willy Ley was prominently featured with Wernher Von Braun in the Disneyland "Man In Space" episodes. He was already well known, but that shot of national exposure likely led to the model line.