Forgotten Sword and Sorcery Artists: Virgil Finlay

Sunday , 15, October 2017 4 Comments

Virgil Finlay (1914-1971) was one of the first artists of sword and sorcery fiction. Hugh Rankin and Vincent Napoli are almost the only ones who proceed Finlay in the genre.

Finlay started in the pages of Weird Tales in 1935. He illustrated Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Finlay illustrated early sword and sorcery for Clifford Ball and Henry Kuttner.

He produced illustrations for A. Merritt’s “The Dwellers in the Mirage” for Fantastic Novels (1941). Finlay did a stint in the U.S. Army in the engineers serving in the Pacific in WWII.

Virgil Finlay produced covers and interior illustrations for pulp magazines and digest magazines after WW2 up through the 1960s. His career appeared to peter out some in the early 60s. Robert Lowndes re-used a lot of his interior art for pulp magazines for cover art for Magazine of Horror and Startling Mystery Stories in the 1960s.

Finlay did get a boost and provided a boost to sword and sorcery fiction in the early 1960s. L. Sprague de Camp edited the first three sword and sorcery paperback anthologies in 1963, 1965, and 1967. At the end of the 60s, you have anthologies edited by Lin Carter and Hans Stefan Santesson. De Camp was the pioneer in this regard.

Virgil Finlay did the covers for Swords & Sorcery (Pyramid Books, 1963) and The Spell of Seven (Pyramid Books, 1965). The contents were good for these slender volumes. De Camp’s introductions to authors ranged from good to execrable (“Maladjusted to the point of psychosis”).

Each story had an interior illustration by Virgil Finlay as a bonus. They were all recycled from pulp magazines. I recognize the illustration for Clifford Ball’s “The Thief of Forthe” from Weird Tales used for Robert E. Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight.”

Finlay’s covers for these two paperbacks capture the feel of the pre-Frazetta era. They have a pulp cover look to them which is appropriate. They are eye catching.

Finlay was almost an artist for J. R. R. Tolkien. The American division of Tolkien’s hardback publisher was looking into a new edition and had Finlay produce a piece taken from The Hobbit. The project never happened but it is interesting for the intersection of American pulp with English fantasy.

One last paperback would recycle an old Virgil Finlay illustration. Swordsmen and Supermen (Centaur Books, 1972) has a Finlay illustration originally for Clifford Ball’s “The Goddess Awakes” from Weird Tales (1938). The actual anthology is nothing to write home about with a Robert E. Howard humorous western, stories by unknown writers Darrell Crombie and Jean D’esme, and one of Lin Carter’s short pieces. The highlight of the book is a reprint of “The Slave of Marathon” by Arthur D. Howden Smith from Adventure. “The Slave of Marathon” is one in the “Grey Maiden” series about a sword that gets passed down through the ages. That is a great series.

Finlay died from cancer in 1971. He was a better black and white illustrator than a color cover painter. He re-used some poses which in turn appear to be taken from photographs. In some ways, he was the original photo-shop artist. Despite that, he gave us two great paperback covers in the years right before the Frazetta revolution.

  • deuce says:

    Finlay tended to be a little stiff, but I love his work. That said, I still think Stephen Fabian is better. More vital and less posed.

    That SPELL OF SEVEN cover reminds me that Finlay liked to use the motif of skeletal hands — sometimes with a skull as well — cupping/grasping for characters from the story being illustrated.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Finlay was one of A. Merritt’s favorite artists, but Fabian is very good too.

  • I have always been very inspired by his work. Great post!

  • deuce says:

    Holy crap! It just hit me… Check out that “Spawn of Dagon” WT cover and then tell me that Ed Wood didn’t see it at some point:

    I suppose it could be coincidence, but it’s a striking coincidence if that’s the case.

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