Between 1962 and 2009, the British Government’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) had a UFO desk and telephone hotline that collected around 11,000 cryptic sightings from across the United Kingdom. The files are now accessible to the public, and among the reports on flying saucers and inexplicable lights in the night sky are drawings that attempt to describe their fleeting forms. As part of its new Four Corners Irregular series on modern British visual culture, Four Corners Books has published selections of this alien art in UFO Drawings From The National Archives by David Clarke.
A US release of the book is planned for February 2018. As Clarke, a reader and principal lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, explains in a book essay, the first release of UFO documents in 2007 came after years of effort:
The opening of these formerly secret files was a personal victory for me. For a decade before the MoD’s announcement I had waged a long campaign, using new powers under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI), for the full disclosure of Britain’s UFO files. From 2005, when the act came into force, I used a series of targeted FOI requests under the new act to persuade the Ministry of Defence to make their UFO material available for academic researchers. I argued there was a genuine public interest in how the government had investigated sightings of mysterious objects in the sky and that, by embracing greater openness, they could dispel many misconceptions about a subject long mired in unnecessary secrecy.
Then there was a strange twist where Clarke, long on the other side of access, was invited to work with the British National Archives during the release of the MoD UFO files. The project culminated in 2017, with a dedicated online UFO portal from the National Archives with thousands of digitized files. In UFO Drawings, Clarke delves into the history of MoD and the rise of UFO sightings following World War II. The overriding question, as put forth by Winston Churchill in 1952, was: “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?”
Clarke was particularly interested in how UFOs were depicted in art, whether crude crayon on construction paper drawings by elementary school children who collectively witnessed a flying saucer in 1977, or a beautifully painting bright white object observed over a roof in Harborne in 1975.
“Viewed from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, sketches of UFOs made by schoolchildren or policemen might appear naïve or worthless,” he writes. “But as visual evidence of unusual sightings that are deeply meaningful and significant to those individuals who see UFOs, they are uniquely valuable historical documents in their own right, and shed light on how the events and popular culture of the age imprinted on people’s imaginations.”
Indeed, UFO sightings spiked around cultural moments such as the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A rocket-shaped craft viewed through a telescope in Hampstead in 1972 looks strikingly like one from the 1960s science fiction television show, Thunderbirds. Yet there’s an incredible diversity of shapes, colors, and movement of the UFOs, ranging from huge hovering eggs, to dark triangular ships and soaring discs.
Each of the sketches, paintings, and even a few photographs in UFO Drawings is joined by a personal account. For a 1998 illustration of a salmon-hued, crop circle-creating orb adorned with Egyptian ankhs — a vision that seems fueled by Sun Ra’s cosmic Afrofuturism — the Oxfordshire correspondent wrote: “I have developed contact with this craft and their energy forces but unfortunately the designs I am perceiving are too complex for me to draw … these include anti-gravitational fields that allow the craft to access time.” A police officer in 1966 soberly diagrammed an object “the length of a bus” that “emanated a greenish grey glow.” An RAF intelligence officer later interviewed the man, and reported “there is no reason to doubt the fact that this constable saw something completely foreign to his previous experience.”
Every drawing is an artifact of the modern enigma of UFO sightings, and how our hopes and anxieties for a connection with other worlds rose in the late 20th century. The MoD desk may now be closed, but these personal experiences, and their visual record, are evidence of a widespread, mysterious phenomenon.