RIP Vaughan Oliver: The visionary 4AD artist who defined the aesthetic of a subculture

Remembering Vaughan Oliver: 1957-2019

The rusted implements of underground torture. The sleeping sirens floating in shallows. The aliens made purely of distended eyeballs. The loveless beds, gelatinous hearts, topless flamenco dancers and monkeys cowering amid sinister numerical runes. Many a graphic designer has made a major impact on their musical era, from the clean-cut photography of Merseybeat to the ransom note aesthetic of punk and Hipgnosis’ visual prog profundities, but they largely reflect a brief moment in the cultural churn. The work of Vaughan Oliver, primarily for the 4AD label, on the other hand, set the visual and emotive tone for an entire subculture which endured for decades.

Gifted with an ability not merely to reflect the titles and themes of the artists he worked with but the essence of the music itself, his cover art captured the mystery, gruesomeness, intangible ennui and cult enchantment of 4AD’s dark, amorphous and sometimes visceral brand of alternative culture. Alongside the sepia teen idol nostalgia of The Smiths and their ilk Oliver was responsible for embodying the aesthetic of early indie rock, but where The Smiths’ imagery appealed to wan and wistful suburban introverts his spoke to the more desolate, deep and damaged. Adapting gothic imagery (minus the graveyard overtones) into the influence of Warhol, Dali and the Surrealists, Oliver’s often monochrome works were both fresh and antique, crisp and otherworldly, crepuscular but – crucially – not corny. His early cover art for albums of spectral melodic ambience by The Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil were formative not just for his style but the entire 4AD aesthetic and the bewitched family beyond, finding a hazy beauty in death, delicacy, deformity and decay.

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Vaughan Oliver, 1957-2019. “To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy.” Robert Doisneau We are incredibly sad to learn of the passing of Vaughan Oliver; there was no-one else like him. Without Vaughan, 4AD would not be 4AD and it’s no understatement to say that his style also helped to shape graphic design in the late-20th century. In 1980, he was the label’s first employee, designing his first sleeve for the Modern English single ‘Gathering Dust’ before going on to create iconic works for the likes of Pixies, Breeders, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses, Lush, Pale Saints, TV On The Radio, Scott Walker and countless others.  The Guardian said his designs were “abstract, dreamlike, elegant” and they weren’t wrong, he gave both us as a label and our musicians an identity and a voice. We will miss you Vaughan and our thoughts are with your family and friends.  We were blessed to know you and will forever be thankful for all you did. Photo by Luca Gioretto

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It was with his freak show daguerreotype sleeve for Pixies’ 1987 mini-album ‘Come On Pilgrim’ that Oliver really hit his stylistic stride. Discovered at a Royal College Of Art degree show by photographer Simon Larbalestier and resembling a Victorian ape-man ashamed at being set amongst unaccustomed luxury, it perfectly encapsulated the mythic and macabre nature of the record, and Oliver and Larbalestier would continue to build on their compelling cult visions for Pixies’ world. The flamenco dancer strutting topless through a decaying Latin American church scene on the cover of 1988’s ‘Surfer Rosa’ encapsulated the album’s sexual and religious deviances delivered in rabid Puerto Rican flurries. The angelic monkey caught within arcane sepia patterns and numerals on the sleeve of 1989’s ‘Doolittle’ spoke of the supernatural Biblical brimstone pop within. When the band went sci-fi in the ‘90s, the pair reacted with colourful but disturbing B-movie images on the slick ‘Bossanova’ (1990) and gristly ‘Trompe Le Monde’ (1991). The new colour seeped over into Pixies’ wider diaspora too: Kim Deal’s The Breeders were similarly defined by the floral sexuality of Oliver’s ‘Pod’ sleeve and the bleeding heart of ‘Last Splash’.

These were images which drew the purchaser into a cult-like family; once you dared to pick up the record and break the cellophane there was no going back. And this was Oliver’s chief skill – to make bands the centres and overseers of unique aesthetic worlds. In Oliver’s hands, Kristen Hersh became author of anguished musical scrapbooks. Red House Painters became occupants of bleak, passionless bedrooms. Lush became observers of the bright particles of human emotion. He might not have contributed to the sonic landscapes, but he mapped them like no other.