In 1969, while George Hardie was still an art student at the Royal College of Art, he was summoned to the attic office of RAK Records on Oxford Street in London to meet Peter Grant, the larger-than-life manager of a new group called Led Zeppelin.
Hardie had been recommended to the moustachioed Goliath after adding the typography to Jeff Beck’s recent album, Truth. ‘I sat biting my nails. Opposite me sat four musicians biting theirs,’ recalls Hardie.
RAK Records was situated near the Marquee Club in Soho, where a small queue was forming to see the newly formed British rock band play live for the first time.
‘Every so often one of them, a blond, would set off down the stairs to the Marquee and arrive back, puffing, to report on the growth of the queue.’ The blond was singer Robert Plant.
Inside the office, Hardie presented his ideas for the cover of the rock band’s debut album, a design based on an old club sign from San Francisco. It was rejected by a ‘thin dark-haired man’, who turned out to be the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Page.
It was The Who’s raucous drummer, Keith Moon, who had suggested the name Led Zeppelin after a humorous conversation with Page about being in a group together, and their chances of going down like a lead balloon. So Page wanted an image inspired by a photograph of the Hindenburg Zeppelin exploding into flames that was taken by Sam Shere in 1937.
‘So I set to, and with my finest Rapidograph, dot-stippled a facsimile of the famous photograph some seven inches square on a sheet of tracing paper,’ says Hardie.
The artist admits he had no idea then that the extravagantly hirsute band would become so successful and that their album, Led Zeppelin I, would go on to sell millions of copies. There is even a lithograph of the album cover held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hardie was paid £60 for the artwork, which he says he was quite happy with. ‘I think the drawing made a good and memorable cover, but this was more to do with the photograph and Jimmy Page’s choice of it than with my skill as a dotter,’ he says modestly.
Today, as well as being responsible for some of the world’s most iconic album covers, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Technical Ecstasy for Black Sabbath, Hardie is a celebrated illustrator and designer. His clean, geometrical drawings are instantly recognisable on book covers and postage stamps.
Hardie was clearing out his studio when he found the original tracing for ‘Led Zeppelin I’ at the bottom of a plan chest. It had ‘G’s pension fund’ written on the folder
Hardie’s relationship with Led Zeppelin continued through the design collective Hipgnosis. ‘We did some good work for them,’ he acknowledges — notably his design for their 1976 album Presence. The artist’s surreal collage of a happy suburban family seated around a strange, primeval statue was as disconcerting as it was humorous.
A few years ago, Hardie was clearing out his studio when he found the original tracing for Led Zeppelin I at the bottom of a plan chest. ‘It was unsullied, in a clean folder on which one of my partners had written years ago, “G’s pension fund”.’
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The original artwork for Led Zeppelin I by George Hardie sold for $325,000, more than 16 times its low estimate, in Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts including Americana during Classic Week at Christie’s in June 2020.