The story behind Radiohead’s cover art: meet Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Donwood’s decades-long creative collaboration with Radiohead has been truly extraordinary — something he and the band’s frontman Thom Yorke talk about in the video above. Between 1999 and 2001, the artist created paintings in response to the albums Kid A and Amnesiac, six of which are now being offered for sale at Christie’s

Stanley Donwood is the artist responsible for Radiohead’s mysterious album covers — all those strange, digitally manipulated images that speak of modern alienation.

Born Dan Rickwood in 1968, Donwood first met the band’s main vocalist and songwriter, Thom Yorke, as a student at Exeter College of Art and Design in the late 1980s. 

He ‘looked like he was there by mistake’, recalls Yorke, remembering a fire-breathing hippy with red hair and a tweed cap. ‘I decided I didn’t trust him. Had a feeling I’d end up working with him.’

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Residential Nemesis, 1999. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. Sold for £137,500 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Residential Nemesis, 1999. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. Sold for £137,500 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

In 1994 the pair collaborated on the cover art for Radiohead’s third EP, My Iron Lung.

Yorke remembers wandering around the basement of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford with a video camera, looking for a tank ventilator. They found some resuscitation dummies instead, which gave rise to the image on the cover of the band’s second album, The Bends, released the following year.

Then came OK Computer  in 1997, and Kid A  in 2000, with Donwood’s stylistic collision of punk, pastoral and politics now a key feature of the group’s aesthetic.

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Hotels and a Swimming Pool, 1999. Acrylic, oil stick, paper collage and mixed media on canvas. Sold for £125,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Hotels and a Swimming Pool, 1999. Acrylic, oil stick, paper collage and mixed media on canvas. Sold for £125,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

‘It’s quite rare for a band to be as interested in their visual representation as the music,’ says the artist.

So important did Radiohead consider the artwork that Donwood was invited to move into the studio during the recording of Kid A  so that his paintings might respond to the developing mood of the album.

This close collaboration has continued throughout the band’s career, most recently on the 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

Yorke says that ideas come ‘from the music mostly, but concepts fly around and sometimes these fall in line… But often things move downriver, just finding their way.’

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Trade Center, 1999. Acrylic, charcoal, chalk and paper collage on canvas. Sold for £118,750 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Trade Center, 1999. Acrylic, charcoal, chalk and paper collage on canvas. Sold for £118,750 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

In October six of Donwood’s canvases — created during the recording of Kid A  and soon after — are offered in First Open: Post War and Contemporary Art Online, part of the 20th/21st Century auction series in London. 

Among them are the desolate, snow-covered Residential Nemesis (1999) and Hole (2001). Lyrical yet menacing, with sinister skies, the paintings suggest nature fighting back against an oppressive force.

Donwood agrees that the works he made in response to Kid A  were dark. ‘I had a lot of things on my mind to do with the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and the death tolls,’ he says. ‘It was about some sort of cataclysmic power existing in the landscape.’

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Minos Wall I, 2000. Acrylic, spray paint and charcoal on canvas. Sold for £50,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Minos Wall I, 2000. Acrylic, spray paint and charcoal on canvas. Sold for £50,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

Yorke has written that he and Donwood were ‘obsessed with triangular mountains’ and ‘had visions of pyramids flying over us’.

‘We started to use the computer to collapse geology into itself and to exaggerate mountains and gorges,’ says Donwood, ‘to populate the landscape with stalking creatures like pylons that had come to life, with half-completed cartoon behemoths and floating red cubes, aerial swimming pools of blood.’

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Get Out Before Saturday, 2000. Acrylic on canvas. Sold for £125,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Get Out Before Saturday, 2000. Acrylic on canvas. Sold for £125,000 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

One of these jagged visions made it onto the cover of the album: a vertiginous mountainscape digitally stretched out of all proportion. 

It reflected the apprehension felt by many at the turn of the new millennium, together with the band’s own anxieties following the phenomenal success of OK Computer.

Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Hole, 2001. Acrylic on canvas. Sold for £68,750 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online
Stanley Donwood (b. 1968), Hole, 2001. Acrylic on canvas. Sold for £68,750 on 19 October 2021 at Christie’s Online

The works will be exhibited at Christie’s in London, 9-15 October, together with drawings, lyrics and digital art by Donwood and Yorke. The artist’s gallerist, James Elwes, describes the paintings as ‘pieces of history with an evocative soundtrack’.

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‘I find it hard to look at these paintings without hearing the music,’ says Donwood. ‘It’s kind of in them, it’s encoded.’