It is well-documented that a fairground artist named Joe Ephgrave painted the Sgt. Pepper album cover drum design. Little else, however, has ever been published about the man. This has led some to even suggest that the name was in fact an invention. Here, we take a short look at the artist’s background and his role in cultural history.

Frederick ‘Joe’ Ephgrave was born near Slough in 1928. His parents emigrated to Australia in 1940, but young Joe chose to remain and seek his fortune in England. Fairgrounds were a favourite haunt, and on one occasion, a fairground worker made Joe a gift of a set of paint-brushes. He taught himself to paint and managed to gain employment as a showman’s artist with a travelling fair.

As his painting skills developed, his reputation grew—by the 1960s, Joe and his work were well known in the fairground world. Further opportunities came Joe’s way as authentic artists were often employed to create fairground artwork when called for by film or theatrical productions.

In March 1967, the Beatles were completing their new album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and gave the task of producing the cover artwork to pop artist Jann Haworth and her husband, Peter Blake. Already familiar with Joe’s work, Haworth commissioned him to design and paint the album title for the drum which would be the centre-piece of the cover. Joe created blue-prints for several designs of which two were short-listed by Haworth for him to hand-paint at full size.

On the 30th March 1967, at a photographic studio in Chelsea, London, the two finished paintings were attached to either side of a military bass drum for the album cover photo-shoot. Candidate shots were taken of the Beatles and their selection of well-known figures standing behind each of the two drum designs before the final selection, of the design, dubbed by Joe as being in ‘the futuristic style’, was made.

For Joe, it was just another job; he was not present at the photo-shoot and didn’t get to meet the Beatles. While the album’s music and cover were winning awards, Joe was painting the merry-go-round ‘gallopers’ for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Joe died in 2004, but his iconic drum design lives on and today is reproduced on everything from aprons to lamp-shades. Billed by Christie’s as ‘the world’s most famous drum skin’, the original painting used on the album cover, was sold at auction in 2008 for more than half a million pounds. Joe’s alternative design for the album, unseen on the back of the drum, has since the photo-shoot, hung on the wall in Paul McCartney’s London home.

Text copyright © 2013, Lennie Payne