Stewart Mackinnon is one of the great mystery figures in British illustration. In just a few years, in the early 1970s, he established himself as an original and brilliantly accomplished draftsman and image-maker. His extraordinary drawings appeared in all the key magazines and he had a thriving practice while he was still an MA student at the Royal College of Art. When he entered the college, he set out to win the annual drawing prize, as David Hockney had done before him, and here, too, he succeeded. For those who admired Mackinnon — the trendy young art directors who wanted his work in their pages and the incoming band of students who hoped to follow in his footsteps — it must have seemed like the enviable early stages of what would turn out to be a glittering career.
But Mackinnon’s graduation from the RCA in 1974 was also his moment of resignation as an image-maker. Leaving behind a body of published work that few could rival in intensity, he took the decision to walk away. “My favorite illustrator!” says former Pentagram partner David Hillman the moment I mention Mackinnon’s name. “If there was an un-illustratable subject, I used to ring Stewart.” As art director of Nova, the iconoclastic, thinking woman’s magazine, Hillman commissioned some of Mackinnon’s finest images. “When he gave up illustration,” recalls Hillman, “I was heartbroken.”
I have always wondered about Mackinnon. In 1971, aged 14, I bought my first issue of the underground magazine Oz. The whole thing was mind-blowing to the eyes of a suburban teenager, but commanding the center spread — you had to turn the magazine around to look at it like a poster — was an image even more bizarre than the rest of the issue. Two strange beings, more alien than human, stand confronting each other in a box. Tubes suggesting machinery or a scientific experiment hang behind them. The female’s breasts are sharp cones ready to slot into the male’s body and the male’s penis is a similar device. Their mouths are open, as if caught in argument, and their arms are twisted up behind them as though they are being manipulated by an unseen force; their union, which appears to be a foregone conclusion, seems more likely to wound them than to bring much pleasure.
The image, drawn in ink, doesn’t illustrate an article and it has no title or explanation. It does, however, have a noticeable signature: Stewart Mackinnon. In subsequent issues of Oz, I saw other disturbing images by illustrators such as Peter Till and Jim Leon, but it was Mackinnon’s precisely drafted, metallic-looking mutant lovers that lodged deepest in my mind.
Later, in the mid-1980s, when I started to meet designers and illustrators, his name came up again. In the now legendary “Radical Illustrators” issue of Illustrators magazine (no. 38), published in 1981 by the Association of Illustrators, George Snow, also an Oz contributor, singles out Mackinnon as “perhaps the greatest single influence on today’s Radical Illustrators.” Snow continues: “The formal construction of his work (particularly the figures) established the ‘mood’ which is so much a part of contemporary radicals’ work.” Radical illustrator Robert Mason, who edited the issue, notes his own first encounter with Mackinnon’s steely line work in the pages of Oz no. 37 (September 1971). “Who is this man? And how does he do that?” the young Mason wondered. “Subsequent sightings of his . . . work marked a watershed for me and others.” Mason made a beeline for the RCA.
Yet, 20 years ago, when I asked Mackinnon’s younger colleagues what had become of him, no one knew, except to say he had quit illustration to go into film-making and was last heard of teaching film at Newcastle Polytechnic. In 2006, I couldn’t find anyone who had a clue where he was. Then I saw a picture on the web of a producer called Stewart Mackinnon receiving a film award and when I phoned the production company involved it turned out to be our man. I wondered whether Mackinnon would resent this unexpected inquiry about activities he had left behind in his 20s, but he readily agreed to discuss his early work.
In 2005, Mackinnon formed a new production company, Headline Pictures, out of an earlier venture and we meet at his base in Soho, in the Goldcrest Post offices, a powerhouse of British film-making. Mackinnon, a tall, affable Scot with curly silver hair, is welcoming and talkative and I get the impression that my interest in his work has surfaced at the right time. Although he is deeply embedded in the TV and film world that he has made his home, he has been thinking about his brief first career and it sounds as though drawing is a possibility never far from his mind.
Mackinnon was born in Edinburgh in 1948. “The only thing I could do at school was draw,” he begins. “I wanted to be an artist of some kind, whatever that meant.” But his teacher advised him that without the necessary qualifications he would never get into art school. Mackinnon left school at 16 and worked for two years as an apprentice lithographic artist. He learned the discipline of lettering — “the joy of that detailed work” — and about trade unionism, the start of an interest in politics that underpins his work as an illustrator as well as his film-making. On his own initiative, he attended life drawing classes twice a week at Edinburgh College of Art: “I just loved it and I knew I could do it.”
Each year the print industry awarded a scholarship so that someone promising could go to art school and Mackinnon won a place to study graphic design and illustration at Edinburgh Art College. “It was a classical training,” he notes, and he sunk himself into the study of drawing and painting. “The people who always interested me, and still do, are the great classical painters who could draw, and people like George Grosz and that kind of very aggressive, explicit graphics. I also loved Eric Gill and that kind of classical, beautiful drawing.” With friends, Mackinnon designed books and magazines, including a community newspaper titled Stampede. Gordon Brown, later Prime Minister, edited the student magazine New Edinburgh Review and Mackinnon provided biting Orwellian drawings in which animals take on human characteristics. Two issues from 1972, art directed by Jim Downie, were published in the 1973 Design and Art Direction annual along with a couple of Mackinnon’s Nova drawings.
By that time, Mackinnon had moved to London where he planned to freelance for a year before taking up a place at the RCA. “Edinburgh wasn’t the Edinburgh that it is today, which is much more of an international city,” he explains. “London was glamorous and exciting. Music was happening there. For the first year, wherever I went I could get work.” He took on assignments for Time Out, the feminist magazine Spare Rib, the literary journal Ambit, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Illustrated London News and Management Today, as well as Oz and Nova. “He just turned up with his portfolio one day,” recalls Hillman. “It’s the wrong expression, but it was love at first sight. I just thought, ‘Shit, I’m going to find this guy a job before he leaves the office.’”
Mackinnon’s drawings for Nova, published in 1972 and 1973, show another side of his work: most notably, they are in pencil rather than pen and ink. This was the great era of highly finished pencil illustration — even in consumer magazines much of the printing was black and white — and Nova’s large pages were filled with conceptual drawings for features and short stories executed in pencil by some of the best illustrators of the time. Hillman was looking for artists who were more than just flashy stylists; he wanted visual storytellers who could think. “My brief to the illustrators was: I want you to add something to the story,” he says. “I don’t want you to illustrate what the words are saying.”
There are traces of Surrealism in these images and in similar pieces for other outlets, though they are less extravagantly savage, less angry, than the Oz drawings, which feel like visions from a sickeningly bad trip. The content and atmosphere is best described as existentialist: these scenarios could come from plays by Beckett and Pinter, or philosophical texts by Camus and Sartre. Mackinnon’s people are lone individuals, standing with their arms by their sides; sitting immobile in chairs; lying in bed; crouching naked in a bare shop window. Relationships, where they are shown, seem fraught. The spaces he situates these characters in have elements of realism, but the austere settings, delineated with great exactitude, are more like stage-sets stripped of cosy detail and reduced to floorboards, open doorways, handrails and bare walls. In one Nova drawing for a short story, a man and woman turn away from each other on an unnaturally straight path surrounded by curious vertical forms that appear to be tree trunks without branches. The original drawing has a relish of minutiae and a subtlety of texture that reproduction can only hint at.
Even before Mackinnon arrived at the RCA, he was committed to student politics. In Edinburgh, he had been arrested during an anti-apartheid demonstration against the 1969-70 tour by the South African rugby team, the Springboks. It went to court but a witness came forward to say she had seen the police attack him and Mackinnon was acquitted. In London, he was involved with Trotskyist political groups. The London School of Economics and the Architectural Association were centers of radicalism and Mackinnon attended meetings where the Marxist group Lotta Continua (continuous struggle) presented ideas for restructuring every aspect of society. “For me, a guy coming from Edinburgh and arriving in London, being part of this European mix of ideas and cultures was fantastic and truly exciting,” he says. “Now I think universities and art colleges are largely about business and careers. That’s the world we live in, but when I look back it was so different.”
The idealistic political anger that Mackinnon felt — along with many other young people in those years — can be deduced from the mood of alienation in many of his drawings and it can be seen in his preference for symbolic forms. “Any strong feeling produces an idea of emptiness within us and lucid language which presents this emptiness also prevents poetry appearing in thought,” he writes in the RCA magazine Ark (no. 51) in 1973. “For this reason an image, an allegory, a form disguising what it means to reveal, has more meaning to the mind than the enlightenment brought about by words or their analysis.”
In the early 1970s, the RCA illustration department housed some exceptional figures: the Quay Brothers, who would become film-makers; Sue Coe (“the real thing . . . dark and complicated,” says Mackinnon); and the proto-punk image-maker Terry Dowling. Mackinnon absorbed influences from John Heartfield, whose political photomontages for AIZ magazine he especially admired, and from the film-makers Alexander Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Walerian Borowczyk and Jean-Luc Godard. By 1973, his accelerated career had moved into a third phase, with the frequent use of collage elements: diagrams of the nervous system, the inner ear, or an ulcerated stomach, as well as machine parts. His human figures became more stylized, their statuesque bodies fractured and segmented like automata, and the pictorial spaces they occupied were likewise ruptured and remade. Mackinnon would chop up drawings, stick them together in new configurations and redraw this assemblage on tracing paper. He built up surfaces with layers of torn paper, which play against sharply drawn lines, angles and grids, and used shreds of tape to hold the image together, anticipating the “ripped-and-torn” aesthetic of the late 1970s by several years. This was still the period of slick and cheerful airbrush illustration and no one else in Britain was regularly publishing such conceptually adventurous images at the time.
Russell Mills, later a key figure in illustration himself, struck up a conversation with Mackinnon while taking an unofficial tour around the RCA. “He was really inspiring and encouraging,” recalls Mills. “He was initially quite frightening because he seemed quite big to me, with big hair, and very passionate about what he was doing. But that’s why I liked him. I’d seen the Oz stuff and I thought: ‘Wow, he’s here. Christ!’ It was incredible . . . Here was Mackinnon doing this meticulously tight drawing, very precise, and yet with this added surreal sense and weird displacement of things that was appealing to me. It was science fiction, it was kind of political, it was forward-looking, it was about the future. That was the kind of stuff I was interested in. I thought: well, I’m allowed to do this.” In 1974, Mills joined the illustration department.
But Mackinnon was restless. Pushing against what he increasingly saw as the limits of illustration, he transferred to the painting department after a year, hoping to expose his way of drawing to more painterly influences. This still didn’t satisfy him. In 1969, he had spent time with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, working for artistic director Trevor Nunn on a drawings of a minimalist set design for The Winter’s Tale. Mackinnon loved the collaborative aspect of the work. “In many ways it was like a film studio,” he says. And it was film that now gripped his attention. Technically he remained in painting, but he spent his final year in the film school, learning the basics of filming and editing, while soaking up film history and contemporary cinema at the National Film Theatre in the evenings.
Mackinnon vividly recalls the incident that made him decide to break with illustration for good while he was still at the RCA, despite his considerable success. One Sunday morning he received a call inviting him to a meeting. “I went to the Park Lane Hotel and there was Roger Law, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman. There was a woman in a huge room and she said, ‘My company would like to bring you all to the States to cover different events.’ I was to cover trials. And what was the magazine? It was Playboy magazine! Here’s me wanting to do politics and here is this capitalist magazine. I wouldn’t go.”
Such a decision might seem unfathomable more than 30 years later, in a changed world, but in the 1970s concerns about selling out ran deep. Mackinnon feared that taking up Playboy’s offer, along with other opportunities coming his way, would pull him ever deeper into the commercial world. He was entirely serious in his political convictions; RCA colleagues remember him for it, though Hillman expressed surprise when I pointed out how radical he had been. Mackinnon continued to draw during his remaining time at the college, but he declined all further commissions. Looking back today, he takes a different view of his refusal to acccept Playboy’s ambitious proposal. “I regret it. I should have gone and done it and gone on to other things. It was a real turning point for me.”
Yet Mackinnon did go on to other things. On graduating, he formed a film production company, Film Work Group, with other RCA graduates and, in 1976, released his first film as director, Justine, a 90-minute series of tableaux representing incidents from de Sade’s novel. After spells in Newcastle and in Berlin, on a scholarship, he formed a new production company, Trade Films, and directed and produced more than 30 films — “left-wing propaganda,” he jokes — for Channel 4. The Miners’ Campaign Tapes, which Trade Films co-produced in 1984 during the divisive and bitter miners’ strike, won the annual Grierson Award for best documentary.
More recently, Mackinnon has moved into narrative film-making — a concern with narrative always propelled his drawings. This Little Life, a TV film he produced in 2003 about a mother and her tiny premature baby, won several awards, including three BAFTAs. These days Mackinnon prefers to produce rather than direct since this allows control of every aspect of a project. Headline Pictures, his latest TV and film venture, looks set to generate his largest and most commercial projects to date, including Peter Pan in Scarlet, based on a sequel by the acclaimed children’s writer Geraldine McCaughrean, and a TV mini-series of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle with Ridley Scott as executive producer.
No reason to look back, one might think. Yet a trace of wistfulness, an intimation that he could perhaps some day draw again, runs through our conversation. “There’s been a 30-year gap,” he says towards the end. “But I always get up and think I could do it — I’ll go back to my real job and do it.” The truth is that Mackinnon has already done it, and he has avoided repeating himself, too. This long lost illustrator is one of Britain’s finest and, if the discipline could one day pull its scattered history together, his place in its development is assured.
This article was first published in Varoom no. 3, 2007. Some small edits and updates have been made.