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Rodney Matthews

“I encourage people to get on my wavelength a bit and, without being pretentious, travel to far-flung planets.” Welcome to the world of Rodney Matthews

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Born in Somerset, July 1945. Rodney Matthews has been a leading light of the fantasy art scene for more that 30 years. He’s most famous for his work on album covers for the likes of Thin Lizzy and Asia. His vast body of illustration work has, in recent time, given way to animation and film projects, which he still pursues from his Welsh mountain hideout.
For more than 30 years Rodney Matthews has been one of fantasy art’s defining figures. The style he characteristically downplays as “slightly organic, spiky stuff” has been used on countless book covers, record sleeves, posters and, in recent times, animation and video games. He maintains that his success is all down to fate: “Somewhere in the universe there’s a stone pillar and chiselled on it is the legend, ‘Matthews will be a fantasy artist’.” Today, unflaggingly enthusiastic about fantasy, Rodney is planning an assault on the world of animation, and even a move to the US.

Somerset born and raised

Rodney Matthews was born in Somerset in 1945. A sensitive youngster, his parents encouraged their son’s obvious artistic streak. Rodney himself recalls being a huge fan of cartoons, and of Disney in particular. “As a child I used to try and draw the characters,” he says, “but I found after a while that I couldn’t do anything that was straightforward.” Rodney seemed unable to draw simple copies, his creations striking a note of extremity, “I always like to embellish and add,” he explains, “which, I suppose was the embryonic stage of being a fantasy artist.” As his education progressed, Rodney continued to work away at his fantastical side but, as so often happens, the practicalities of life came into play. “When I left school,” says Rodney, “I thought, ‘enough of this foolishness, I must get down to earning a living’.” This led to a job retouching photographic plates and film for a large Somerset printworks: “A huge room of people lined up like slaves in a Roman galley.” Suffice to say, Rodney didn’t last.

Light engineering

Still convinced he was destined for a life of hard graft, Rodney tried his hand in his father’s workshop, producing steel structures for the building trade. After six months, with his catalogue of injuries mounting up, Matthews senior told his son: “You’re not really suited to this. Why don’t you go to art college?”

Rodney duly enrolled at Ealing to study design. This was where Rodney discovered his love for rock music, playing in numerous bands and in the process becoming a drummer of not inconsiderable talent. This he kept up after leaving college and joining Bristol ad agency Ford’s Creative, where he stayed for nine years.

Though Rodney readily admits he learned some important lessons at Ford’s, it was clear he was being pulled in another direction. “I’d go off to play a gig at the weekend,” he says, “then turn up at work on the Monday completely unwashed, with no sleep and fall asleep at my desk.”

His boss was surprisingly open-minded, but one day something happened to push Rodney out into the big wide world: “Someone came into the office carrying a portable commode and said ‘Matthews, I want you to do some work on this’ and I thought, ‘right, that’s it’.”

Plastic Dog

Eventually, Rodney settled into a loose partnership with another artist-musician, Terry Brace. The company, known as Plastic Dog, was based in Bristol and produced work for record labels such as MCA, Transatlantic and United Artists. It was during this phase that Rodney developed the distinctive style that his fantasy work is known for.
The record covers became increasingly fantastic and Rodney began to earn himself a bit of a reputation. “It took me a while to get into the style,” he says. And, ever the pragmatist, Rodney sees the development of his ‘spiky organic’ style as a response to consumer demand, “That’s what people seem to like best.”
This all happened in the early ’70s and, just as prog rock was really starting to go ballistic, Rodney was approached by Big O publishing and the poster years started. These were vintage Matthews. “In the seventies I lived from selling posters,” he recalls with a wistful tone. “I sold millions.” This was also the time of Rodney’s fruitful collaboration with fantasy author Michael Moorcock.

From 1973 to 1980 Rodney produced more than 80 original poster designs that sold in their millions around the world, but the party wasn’t going to last for ever. “Everyone jumped on the bandwagon and the bandwagon couldn’t sustain the weight. The whole thing collapsed in 1980.” Rodney was genuinely grieved by the passing of this phase: “Almost overnight the whole thing fell apart.”

Prog rock implosion

The bands that demanded his work had become bloated and self-regarding and the quantity of poor imitations was increasing. Something had to give. The arrival of punk sealed the deal: “All of a sudden, my style was unfashionable.”
What sustained Rodney through the ’80s was the second wave of British heavy metal, “People such as Iron Maiden and Magnum.” A decade of musical collaborations later and Rodney was still exploring that same consistently fantastical world. “What you’ve got to be asking yourself,” he laughs, “is this: is there any one planet where all this stuff is going on?” This was a rhetorical question: “I think there must be.”

A new chapter

“I was at a heavy metal event and this bloke bought a load of my posters.” It was 1992 and the bloke was from a video game company called Traveller’s Tales. “He said they’d like me to do a logo for them.” And so began Rodney’s involvement with the digital world, a direction he’s been pursuing with some vigour ever since.
The Traveller’s Tales job led Rodney into working with video game publisher Psygnosis and helping to create its PlayStation game Shadow Master. “I went on to do a couple of other games after that,” says Rodney, “but the real bonus was getting involved with animation.” The success in 1998 of Lavender Castle, produced by Gerry Anderson, gave Rodney a taste for more.

Now Rodney’s ultimate goal is to set up an animation studio to realise the numerous projects he still has up his sleeve. “In an ideal world,” he says, “if someone asked me what I want to do now it would be children’s animation.” Watch this space.

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