PUBLISHED 01 June 2023

John Blanche was one of the first artists that really gave me an idea of what I wanted to do & be. He was the creative director of Games Workshop & has been the artistic soul of the company since the mid 1980s. His work followed the developments of the English musical world going from Progressive Rock to Hard Rock to Punk & Heavy Metal instead of following the trends of the Art world & the continuously stale but technically & budgetarily improving Fantasy Art world. He was instrumental into adding Punk & Metal into the gaming world, so that things weren’t just so fucking dorky & also took his work seriously as an artist, which is very important. Originally published in The Black Library which is now defunct. John Blanche will not do interviews, so I reprint this one again. (also in Die Wurst VII)

“I distinctly remember being told what I liked was all well & good, & I had a romantic spirit, but it would never earn me a living, so there was no point in doing it.” So speaks John Blanche. As he is now the Art Director of Games Workshop, you can’t help but think his teachers at art college might feel a little foolish now. John’s life is a strange story almost worthy of Dickens, a writer he has a great deal of respect for (like another favourite writer of his, Mervyn Peake, he was an artist too), going from working class kid with a love of toy soldiers to some kind of artistic demiurge. Among ‘shared’ Fantasy & Science Fiction universes, those of Warhammer & Warhammer 40,000 are perhaps some of the most evocative. As an artist & director of artists, John has played a major role in shaping these worlds, or ‘alternative histories’ as he prefers to call them. Partially owing to his sensibilities, these twin game worlds have become dark & dangerous places, contrary to the glossy, High Fantasy universes favoured by U.S. writers, populated by steel bikini-clad blondes. Though it was the emergence of role playing games in the 1970s that helped to gave birth to Games Workshop, the men of GW were soon pushing their games away from the sub-Tolkien worlds of roleplaying. Early RPG’s were kind of the American dream writ large, cartoon versions of the frontier, where adventurous spirits could wrest vast fortunes from unfortunate Orcs by the application of a big axe, even becoming Gods if sufficient foes were felled. Not so in Warhammer & the Science Fantasy universe of Warhammer 40,000, places populated by flawed characters, where the only path to glory is dark and diabolical & the gods are forever hungry. “To me Fantasy is much darker than American High Fantasy, certainly more violent & more oppressive. But it’s also very real,” says John. “I didn’t see Fantasy being occupied by shiny characters, it was all very Dickensian. Fantasy denizens to me all look like Fagin. Everybody has an eye-patch & a wooden leg, dirty fingernails & worn clothes. & thereby lies the strength of it. It is evocative, there is so much background there, the universes are so strong.” John explains that Games Workshop worlds are inspired a lot by the real world. Further, he maintains that the Games Workshop game worlds are extensions of Northern European culture. “History is fascinating. I constantly find that real life is far more bizarre, far weirder, than what you can conjure up with your own mind. In fact, the resonance isn’t just history, or the history of Western Europe, but it echoes through our past, right back to Paleolithic times. It’s a very Northern European thing. Skulls crop up all the time, for instance, in Northern European art. Why? These things have always fascinated me & they find their way into my pictures. You don’t see it so much in Southern Europe. If I were better with words, I might write a book about it.” Would Gothic be the right word? “Yes & no. Gothic means lots of things. You have the architectural style, from the Early Middle Ages, which then became something else in the Late Middle Ages, and was then reinvented by the Victorians, and they applied to all sorts of stuff. Then we have what we call Games Workshop Gothic, which is inspired by, but is none of these things.” The word “Gothic” itself comes from the Goths, a group of ancient Germanic tribes, which brings us neatly back to Northern Europe. John himself is a living extension of this tradition. His major influences include Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer & Hieronymous Bosch. He even goes so far as to put altered versions of figures from their paintings into his own. “The thing is,” he says, “you carry those people with you. I’m not so excited by Bosch anymore, I don’t go out and look at his work, but it is part of me, I suppose, these days.” The influences are there to see. For instance, John still rarely uses blue, his works executed in the earthy orange & red tones favoured by his heroes. However, his head is not only turned by the Germanic. “The best painting I have ever seen in the flesh & a lot of people look at me aghast when I say this, is the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci. I was astounded because I thought it was so much bigger. It’s tiny. They keep it in the Louvre, in this big box, and you have to look through bullet-proof glass at it. You have to push your way through crowds of people. But when I saw it I was transfixed, I thought, ‘;God that is incredible!’ To the same extent I like the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burn Jones. Lawrence Alma-Tadema also. He was a very big Victorian artist, he came from Belgium, but he was actually knighted by Queen Victoria. He was one of the few foreigners to be made a Sir. & I have read accounts of them throwing away his paintings in the 1950’s because they regarded them as being purely chocolate box covers! But I’ve seen a couple. I saw one in a Hamburg museum. You stand 15 feet away & you’re looking at a photograph, and you walk up close and you’re seeing paintbrush strokes. It is emotional, painterly & textural & photographic at the same time, the guy’s a genius! But the person who really had more impact on me than anybody else has to be Rembrandt. He can do the lot. Again, he can paint almost photographically & at other times he can be very loose and expressive.” This conflict & its resolution, between emotional expressionism & the painter’s craft crops up several times as John talks. In some ways, it seems to have driven his development as an artist. He says that when he was younger he was concerned mostly with photographic realism, but this has changed somewhat. “Those painterly brush strokes express raw emotion, whereas tight controlled painting is, to some extent, just purely a visual record. To put a bit of emotion into it gives the painting lots of warmth & a dynamic that you don’t get from photographic rendering. Once I started to appreciate that in Fantasy art... I mean, a person I used to dislike was Frank Frazetta. I used to think, ‘It’s just done dead quick. He’s a great artist but he just doodles them off.’ & then, one day I thought, ‘Actually, the guy’s a genius!’ After that I started to look at different things in art. I started to appreciate even some contemporary art, not all of it, because a lot of it’s awful. Rather than just look at the surface, I started to look into art & feel some of the emotional values of the artist.” Strangely, neither seemed to be particularly favoured by his teachers at college, which just goes to show that while art is a fundamental part of human life, the people who define it as such are horribly afflicted by fashion. “They tried to unteach me at art college. I was a working class lad from a council estate. I went to a secondary modern school & I worked very hard to get into art college. When I arrived there it was full of quasi-intellectuals & the big word at the time was existentialism. I didn’t know what it meant & nobody would tell me what it meant. I wanted to draw pictures. It was just horrendous. A lot of my colleagues had unhappy experiences at art college, because the teachers tried to steer them towards what they considered to be high art, and the craft, the exercise of rendering, is frowned upon, which is just extraordinary.” This is not something that has held back John, nor the likes of Dave Gallagher, Alex Boyd, Karl & Stefan Kopinski, or Paul Dainton, some of Games Workshop’s enormously talented artists. “That leads me to my conviction. I go to a lot of exhibitions and galleries. I don’t go to them all, but when I go to them I think there’s work that we’re producing in our studio now that can stand up alongside some of these great, great artists.” It’s this reverence for the output of the Design Studio that has led to the creation of The Gallery at (the now defunct) Warp Artefacts; an online repository for the very best Games Workshop artwork. The fine art prints available from The Gallery were personally selected by John and represent both a historical record of the Warhammer & Warhammer 40,000 games and are a testament to the talents of the studio artists. Still, GW’s artists are not entirely free. They can’t just make their own stuff up. They are, John says, illustrators, with deadlines to meet. But they are also one of Games Workshop’s primary engines when it comes to dreaming up new wierdnesses to unleash on the tabletop, a process that can also be seen at work in the fiction published by The Black Library. They help the worlds live, and more, they are part of what pushes their evolution forward. “The push and shove of it is those technical restraints, but the pleasurable side of it, the organic growth side of it is trying to make our art visionary, make it lyrical, give it a narrative. That’s my personal sort of driver, not just filling spaces in a book with pictures. Recently I went to the Turner exhibition in Birmingham. I love Turner’s work, but I’d say 90-95 per cent of it was very dull. I feel I know why. Turner, like everybody else, had to earn a living, so he was doing commissions for wealthy people, classicist pictures showing their estates & their houses and the people around them. Only when Turner had the freedom to truly express himself could he let go. So I was looking at his work & thinking: ‘Hey, he’d have loved to have worked for Games Workshop!’” John now describes himself as living in the worlds he has helped to create. His own time is spent working on sketch books, explorations of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. “So I have something to leave to my family. I was seriously ill a few years ago (Blanche had a stroke in 1997). It really was a matter of life or death. And as I lay there I thought ‘what will I leave behind?’ I’ve done loads of work but lots of it is lost, or kept in a drawer.” Confronted with mortality, John works harder to deepen our fictional universes. A more powerful case for the lure of Warhammer you will not find. Fortunately for us, the man is a genius


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