The first ‘proper’ artist to portray a car in his work was probably Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who did a lithograph of his cousin Dr Gabriel Tapié de Celeyran gripping the tiller of an unidentified automobile in 1896 in a bearskin coat, goggles, chauffeur’s cap, leather face-mask and gauntlets, speeding past a woman walking her dog. Posters were all the rage in the last years of the nineteenth century advertising such cars as De Dion Bouton, Peugeot and Panhard et Levassor, as well as Michelin tyres, the slogan for which proclaimed, Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle. (Michelin tyres drink up the obstacle).
The man who thought up the Michelin Man was Marius Rosselin, who signed himself O’Galop, and at a meal of broken glass and hob-nails, our pneumatic gourmand came up with the toast Nunc est bibendum, (Now is thetime to drink), a line taken from an ode by Horace, sometimes known as the Cleopatra Ode. Lautrec went on to design posters for Cycles Michaël and La Chaîne Simpson, as cycling was all the rage in Paris at the time. No style was left unexplored by the early poster designers, and included Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Surrealism, Futurism, Vorticism and Cubism, and reflected the current fads and schools in mainstream art.
When Emile Levassor died in the Paris-Marseille-Paris motor race in 1896, a race he won the year before, he hit a dog and overturned, a monument to ‘a victim of automobilisation’ was suggested
and one of France’s leading sculptors. Aimée-Jules Dalou was commissioned. Dalou was a friend and contemporary of Rodin, but spent eight years in exile in England, teaching and working, after
declaring his political sympathies in the Paris Commune in 1871. He was sentenced to death in his absence, and only returned to France after an amnesty, where he produced monuments to the
great French engineer Adolphe Alphand, Victor Hugo and Eugene Delacroix. The realist work is a marble panel, featuring the heroic automobilist victorious in his Panhard driving through a triumphal arch.
Many artists and illustrators from the turn of the last century featured motor cars in their works, either as commercial art or as illustration, including Cecil Aldin, usually associated with his depictions of hunting scenes. H M Bateman, famous for his ‘The man who . . .’ series of drawing was commissioned to do a number of ads for Shell Petroleum. Cyrus Cuneo
and his son Terence were both fantastic artists when it came to painting cars, as well as locomotives, aeroplanes, Royal portraiture, military subjects and wild life. Charles Sykes, who designed The Spirit of Ecstasy at the request of the Second Baron Montagu for his Rolls-Royce. The model was Eleanor Thornton, with whom Montagu was having an affair, and the first version was called The Whisper and portrayed a young lady with billowing robes and a finger to her lips, complicit in keeping a secret.
Rolls-Royce bought the rights to place her on their radiator caps and he was then commissioned by Rolls-Royce to do six paintings to promote their cars in typical situations, such as arriving
at the opera, at a country house and at a salmon stream. George Studdy, who creation was the colossally famous Bonzo the Dog, was not so fortunate, as he, too was commissioned to provide illustrations for their publicity material, but they were withdrawn in 1908, as they were not quite the image they wanted to promote. A bit too jokey.
William Heath Robinson was a social commentator, cartoonist and illustrator before, during and after the First World War, focussing on the absurdities of life, with a wry humour and a beautifully
executed style, which sometimes involved machinery, much of which were his own devices destined never to work. He produced illustrations for Daimler and Connolly Leather, including booklets and calendars, but his most well-known work was illustrating How to be a motorist, written by an old collaborator, H R G Browne. Presenting such innovations as the ‘Zip-Opening Bonnet’, the ‘Duo-car for the Incompatible’ and the handy ‘New Rear Wheel Gear for Turning the Car’, would appeal to ‘everybody who is ever likely to drive, be driven in, or get run over by a mechanically propelled vehicle’. Many Punch cartoonists, like Leonard Raven-Hill, Bertram Prance, Tom Browne, one of the founder members of the London Sketch Club, Ellis Silas, Starr Wood, René Bull, another Sketcher and war artist sent to India, the Sudan to cover the Battle of Omdurman and the Boer War and, later, Fougasse, pseudonym for Cyril Bird, editor of Punch, whose wonderfully spare drawings were used in the Second World War, reminding civilians that ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’. Lance Thackeray did a popular series of postcards on a motoring theme called ‘Write Away’, while Leslie Ward, the caricaturist known as ‘Spy’, did a number of motoring personalities. The wonderfully versatile artist Rex Whistler was asked to produce some advertising
illustrations for Shell Oil, while E H Shepard, more famous for his drawings of Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne, also included cars in his illustrations, with one of his more famous renditions being Toad of Toad Hall, stealing a bright red sports car and ending up in jail. Poop poop!
Lawson Wood produced humourous drawings for insurance companies featuring Grandpop and the rest of his chimpanzee family. Both Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse painted cars in their work, with the latter’s Pare-brise (Windshield) La Route de Villacoublay, depicting a typical straight, tree-lined French road as seen through the upright windscreen of an old-fashioned car. One car that was literally painted and became a work of art in its own right, was the Straker-Squire raced at Brooklands in 1921 by an ex-naval officer Bertie Kensington-Moir, which was decked out in black and white ‘dazzle’ camouflage paintwork. A celebrated English portrait painter, Frank O Salisbury, who lived in splendour in an ersatz mansion overlooking Hampstead Heath, which Nicholas Pevsner called ‘pure Hollywood Tudor,’ painted an evocative view from the inside of a car in 1928, called The Enchanted Road, with the silhouette of the driver, and his dog in the passenger seat. In 1951, Picasso cast a bronze assemblage of Baboon and Young, using two toy cars borrowed from his son Claude, one upright, a Panhard Dyna X, with its windscreen forming the
baboon’s eyes, and the car’s bonnet the nose, and an upside-down Renault, to form the head of the primate.
Futurism lent itself to speeding automobiles, as well as aeroplanes, as it was all about the future, and nothing about the past, and certainly all about movement. Slipstreams, vortices and speed-lines were all evident in many of the primarily Italian movement’s works. One non-Italian working in the Futurist idiom was the French artist Geo Ham (Georges Hamel), producing hundreds of posters for motor races in varying styles, and René Vincent, produced dynamic paintings, advertisements and stylish illustrations for La Vie Parisienne. In England, motoring artists proliferated and included such masters as Roy Nockolds, who also painted aircraft, Gordon Crosby, of The Autocar, Bryan de Grineau of The Motor and Michael Turner, who did naturalistic views of motor races from impossible angles, while Dexter Brown’s highly-stylised paintings were less to do with realism and more to do with an impresssion of speed. Dame Laura Knight included automobiles
in her Derby Day works, while, over in America, Edward Hopper famously painted Gas, depicting a rural Mobil gas station at dusk, without a car. Hopper purchased his first car in 1927, which
allowed him to escape the confines of the city to discover new, unfamiliar subject matter for his artworks. ‘To me the most important thing is the sense of going on,’ he articulated of his peripatetic impulse. ‘You know how beautiful things are when you’re traveling’ With his wife Jo at the wheel and Hopper in the backseat, the automobile became the couple’s traveling studio.
In America, Photorealism was all the rage in the 1970s, with such anally retentive artists as Don Eddy, Ralph Goings, Robert Bechtle and John Salt, revelling in the highly-reflective chrome and paintwork of Chevrolets and Cadillacs, while in Britain, Andrew Holmes was doing the same thing in pencil, and Brendan Neiland rendered his shiny carsin acrylic. In 1975, sculptor of mobiles,
Alexander Calder was commissioned to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL by art auctioneer Hervé Poulain to race at Le Mans 24 Hour Race, in bold blocks of swirling colour, a proper mobile. Since then, a number of BMW Art Cars have been painted by such world-class artists as David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, César Manrique, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. Why have a work of art on the wall, when you can drive it to work?