Visual Culture
These Drawings Show How Pop Culture Has Changed the Way We See UFOs
The National Archives DEFE24/1999. Drawing of a UFO producing a crop circle, November 1998.

The National Archives DEFE24/1999. Drawing of a UFO producing a crop circle, November 1998.

From 1962 to 2009, a secret division of the British Ministry of Defense—dubbed the “UFO desk”—fielded reports of some 11,000 sightings of unidentified flying objects. These came in the form of tirelessly detailed letters, drawings, photographs, and paintings submitted by an ever-watchful public. But for decades, no one ever saw the files.

Thanks to a decade-long undertaking by the U.K.’s National Archives, more than 60,000 pages of the reports have been released to the public. A new book by Dr. David Clarke, who spearheaded the project as a consultant from 2008 and has spent more than 20 years immersed in ufology, zeroes in on perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the files: the artwork.

From encounters scrawled in crayon by a group of bewildered schoolchildren to a detailed diagram of a UFO producing a crop circle, the now-declassified artworks in UFO Drawings from the National Archives chronicle flying saucers and rockets of all shapes and sizes, reflecting a cultural fascination—and evolving visual language—around UFOs.

The National Archives AIR 2/18961. Painting of a UFO spotted on 18 January 1975, near Birmingham. Later identified as satellites Zond 4 and Cosmos 460.

The National Archives AIR 2/18961. Painting of a UFO spotted on 18 January 1975, near Birmingham. Later identified as satellites Zond 4 and Cosmos 460.

Fittingly, Clarke’s journey to unearth these documents traces back to the era of 1990s sci-fi. Around the 50th anniversary of the Roswell Incident, and as films like Men in Black, Mars Attacks, and Independence Day packed theaters across the globe, Clarke was working as a journalist and engaging with a revival of public interest in aliens and UFOs.

Not long before, the U.K. government had begun releasing previously classified documents from the UFO desk in small increments. Clarke took notice. And when the country’s Freedom of Information Act passed in 2000, granting the public “right of access” to government records, he began making targeted requests for the release of these materials. Ultimately, he began working with the National Archives in an official capacity, acting as a curator of the declassified UFO material.

After publishing an initial book on the files, Clarke narrowed his focus to the artwork embedded in the records, which encapsulate what he describes as a “social phenomenon.”

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“If you look at the illustrations, you tend to notice that the way that people describe the things that they see in the sky seems to change in response to… what’s going on in pop culture,” Clarke tells me. In the 1930s through the ’50s, he says, drawings often mimicked the classic disc-shaped flying saucer—like the one that descends on Washington, D.C., in the 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the rocket-shaped objects of the 1930s serial TV show Flash Gordon.

“But the nearer you get to the present day, you find that people are reporting things in the sky in completely different terms,” he says. More recently, civilian drawings depict giant wedge-shaped or triangular-shaped objects, recalling not only The X-Files spacecraft but, Clarke says, the development of Stealth technology, like the U.S. air force classic F-117 stealth fighter and the B2 bomber.

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There’s two schools of thought here, Clarke says: Either aliens are watching our films and TV shows and are altering their spaceships accordingly; or people are seeing unidentified things in the sky, but the way they recall and report them is being altered by what they expect to see based on popular culture and current technology.

In 1977—a year, Clarke notes in the book, in which a slew of UFO sightings aligned neatly with the release of Star Wars—a group of 10 young children spotted an oval-shaped object floating between a pair of trees on their school playground in Macclesfield, England. Encouraged by their teacher to draw what they saw, the students delivered eerily similar pencil-and-crayon renderings of the scene, which were passed along to the Cheshire Police. The drawings made their way to Air Traffic Control authorities and ultimately were sent to the secret UFO investigation bureau at the Ministry of Defense.

Clarke was about 10 years old at the time, he says, his head filled with images of whirring flying saucers and spaceships borrowed from sources like Dr. Who. Thirty years later, while researching this project, Clarke came across the original drawings from Cheshire.  

The National Archives DEFE24/1967.

The National Archives DEFE24/1967.

It could well have been a weather balloon gone astray, or a helicopter, he says, but it’s impossible to know at this point. “If you’ve got it in your head that aliens exist and that UFOs are visiting us, it’s quite logical then—if you’re of that age, and you’re quite suggestible, you’re going to see something and think it’s a flying saucer.”

But adults, he says, are just as suggestible as children. In 1976, a 27-year-old woman who was the daughter of a Royal Air Force captain was driving near London with her boyfriend when they both spotted a strange object, lit up with white lights, that passed overhead and appeared to be coming in to land. She filed a detailed drawing that showed the UFO from three vantages—straight on, from below, and as seen through the car windshield. Her report made its way to a secretive branch of the Ministry of Defense called D155, where, by consulting radar footage from the area, it was decided that the object was a Boeing 720 plane that had diverted from Gatwick airport at the same time. But she had been clear that the object had no wings, and stressed “it was nothing recognisable to me.”

Another image, known today as The Solway Spaceman, is a mysterious photograph that Carlisle fireman Jim Templeton took of his five-year-old daughter Elizabeth in the English countryside in May 1964. As the story goes, when Templeton came to pick up his developed film, the shop assistant said, “That’s a marvelous photograph, but it’s rather spoilt by the big man behind her!” Indeed, an unexplained figure dressed in a white astronaut suit loomed behind his daughter’s head. Neither the local Cumbrian police (nor the Kodak film company) could explain it. After the image was published in outlets around the world, Templeton reported being visited by two men in black suits and bowler hats. They drove a black Jaguar and said they were from “the Ministry” they asked to be taken to the site of the photograph.

The National Archives DEFE 24/1206.

The National Archives DEFE 24/1206.

The National Archives DEFE 24/1983.

The National Archives DEFE 24/1983.

One less dramatic example holds particular significance for Clarke. “In many of these cases in the history of ufology,” he says, “there are lots of people who have made things up or that have played pranks and told lies about things that they’ve seen.” Others, he says, are just imaginative, claiming they’ve been abducted by aliens or adventured on trips across the universe. So a story of an ordinary policeman who spotted something unusual while on the job, and promptly filed a report, stands out.

In January 1966, a police officer in a town called Wilmslow was checking on houses late in the evening when he saw something unexpected in the sky. Twenty minutes later, back at the station, he quickly sketched the object in pencil—a 30-foot-long mass, roughly the size of a bus, emitting a greenish-gray glow. He even drew a map. The officer then shared his drawing with the police chief and it was forwarded on to an intelligence officer.

As the report reads, “There is no reason to doubt the fact that this constable saw something completely foreign to his previous experience.”

Clarke explains, “This story is typical of an ordinary person just doing their job, not expecting something unusual to happen—and they almost walk over this invisible curtain into the twilight zone, and see something absolutely extraordinary that they just cannot explain. This is the heart of the UFO enigma that we still can’t fully explain.”

Little did they realize these drawings, photographs, and illustrations would find a place in the National Archives, and in the history of 20th-century visual culture.

Molly Gottschalk is Artsy’s Features Producer.