ARTIST RICHARD HAMILTON was a fixture in the world of international art before the Beatles cut their first sides. For the 1956 exhibition called This Is Tomorrow, Richard Hamilton submitted a tiny (10 x 9-inch) collage titled “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?” This one piece brought him to the attention of the international art world and is often referred to as the first example of Pop Art.
In 1968, Hamilton’s dealer was Robert Fraser, one of the hippest scene-makers in swinging London and friend to Paul McCartney. Paul was keen on the world of contemporary art and was looking for something different for the Beatles next album cover.
Fraser had Paul meet Richard, who suggested the stark minimalism of the all-white approach as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the psychedelic albums of the previous twelve months:
“Since Sgt. Pepper was so over the top, I explained, ‘I would be inclined to do a very prissy thing, almost like a limited edition.’ [Paul] didn’t discourage me, so I went on to propose a plain white album. If that were too clean and empty, then maybe we could print a ring of brown stain to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it—but that was thought a bit too flippant.”
The idea that an all-white affair might be too “clean” is interesting, given that much of the Pop Art of the ’60s has a very clean look and feel to it. We do not associate grunginess with this movement—in fact, it’s easier to see it as a bit antiseptic. Hamilton continued:
“I also suggested that they might number each copy, to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies. This was agreed, but then I began to feel a bit guilty at putting their double album under plain wrappers; even the lettering is casual, almost invisible, a blind stamping. I suggested it could be jazzed up with a large edition print, an insert that would be even more glamorous than a normal sleeve.”
This was accomplished by including large (24 x 36 inches) fold-open poster inside the album. One side featured an over-busy, unattractive collection of photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo while the other side featured the lyrics to the album’s songs.
Peter Blake’s rather busy cover for The Beatles (June 1967).
A white wall is too German
Hamilton also suggested making the album’s front cover look like a limited edition art piece, hence the edition number with the stamped-by-hand look in that is one of the highlights of the jacket.
“So now [Richard] was saying, ‘Let’s call it The Beatles and have it white, really white.’ I was saying, ‘Well, I dunno. It’s a great concept, but we are releasing an album here. This is not a piece of art for a rather elite gallery, this is more than that. I see the point. It’s a nice idea, but for what we were to people, and still are, it doesn’t quite fit, we’re not quite a blank space, a white wall, the Beatles.
‘Somebody ought to piss on it or smudge an apple on it for it to become the Beatles because a white wall’s just too German and marvelous for us.’ So the idea then emerged to do the embossing. ‘Maybe if we emboss the word Beatles out of the white, that’ll be good. We’ll get a shadow from the embossing but it’s white on white. It’s still white. That’ll be nice.’ But I still wanted something on the white.” (Paul McCartney)
The album ended up all white with highly glossed cover slicks. The front cover had “THE BEATLES” in raised print and each of the initial jackets had a serial number in black type pressed into the lower right corner. The back cover was blank. The inner faces of the gatefold jacket were also a glossy white with black & white photos of the four Beatles and the list of song titles.
Richard Hamilton’s complete unbusy cover for The Beatles (November 1968).
I thought that was a bit mean
The album was an enormous success commercially and as a work of “art”: sales of the numbered edition quickly surpassed 3,000,000 copies in the US and non-numbered copies have sold millions since! The all-white affair drew attention from all over the musical and artistic spectrum, as much as Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper had during the Summer of Love in 1967, but for completely opposing reasons!
It is a tribute to Hamilton’s vision that the album is hardly ever called to by its actual title, The Beatles, but is almost universally referred to by its unofficial, affectionate nickname, The White Album.
In an interview with The Observer in 2010, Hamilton claimed that he had been paid a mere £200 for the gig: “I thought that was a bit mean.” According to the Consumer Price Index calculator, £200 in 1968 would be worth approximately £3,450 in 2019. The CPI calculator uses rather conservative figures for inflation, but even if we doubled that figure, the fee paid Hamilton was rather mean.
Richard Hamilton passed away at the age of 89 on September 13, 2011.
Hamilton’s slapdash-looking collage of photos for the fold-open poster included with The White Album was messy, making up for the album’s pristine outside. The lyrics to the album’s song were on the other side. Like the four photos of the Fab Four, many fans who bought the album immediately tacked or taped the poster to the walls of the bedroom. Fortunately, since millions of the original photos and poster were printed, they are not difficult to find in near mint condition fifty years later.
We Buy White Albums
The idea of applying a coffee cup stain to the front cover that Hamilton suggested was prescient, at least to conceptual artist Rutherford Chang. He has spent years pursuing used copies of The White Album in a staggering array of conditions, from the used-but-handled-with-care copies (the ones we collectors also pursue) to copies that had been used as canvases for budding artists or sheets of blank paper for potential poets (the ones we collectors scoffed at for years before Rutherford woke us up).
Aside from amassing a collection of more than 2,000 copies of one album, he has used them in an art exhibition called “We Buy White Albums.” Seeing his project for the first time directly conflicted with my lifetime of being a record collector, so I wrote about him and his collection: “.”For the Beatles new album, artist Richard Hamilton proposed a plain white cover with a brown stain printed on it to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is Hamilton’s tiny collage, “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?” It is a tiny piece (10 x 9-inches) that had a big impact on the art that followed it for years.
“In 1956, Richard Hamilton took part in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. For this group show, teams of artists and architects were invited to create discrete zones that accorded with their vision of the future.
Hamilton worked with artist John McHale and architect John Voelcker on presenting a sort of funfair vision of the future where sensual perception was stimulated and confused and images culled from a range of sources formed an iconography for the modern world.
This image is among the most famous in British post-war art. It has come to define the rise of consumer society in the mid to late 1950s and is an icon of Pop art, although the original collage created in 1956, on which this print is based, pre-dates that phenomenon by several years.” (Tate)