A motoring art exhibition

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Last November some of the James Barron collection of motoring objets d’art were tastefully displayed in part of Bethnal Green Museum. I remember, years ago, receiving from Barron some of the finest enlargements of motoring photographs I had then seen. I knew later that he was collecting posters and went in keen anticipation to see what this non-driving enthusiast has amassed. I was not disappointed, and was further impressed to find that admission and car parking were free. On the occasion of this visit some schoolchildren were doing a work-study of the exhibits and I thought how things have altered since the time when my Art Master rebuked me for showing advertisements as a background to a Le Mans scene I had done, saying (which I knew to be wrong) that they wouldn’t have been displayed there!

First, the posters. They included advertising ones for manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, Peugeot, Arnilcar, Ader, Georges Irat and Abarth, ranging from about 1905 onwards. In addition, there were those of petrol and oil companies, two very early Benz-Moteur prints by Jules Cheret dating from about 1900, and R. Geri’s poster of a Bugatti-engined SNCF railcar with a Type 57 Bugatti. Notable was a Henri Bellery Desfontaines’ depiction of a Richard-Brasier in the 1904 Gordon Bennett race and another line in art work was depicted with L. Cusden’s post-war posters, done for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, about the importance of obeying traffic lights (in 1950!), taking extra care in fog, and one, by Keely, about obeying the 30-m.p.h. speed-limit. It was interesting to note that the great Rene Vincent (1879-1936) had done several of the French advertising posters. Then there were those advertising races, at Monza (F.5000), Spa, Monaco (1935 and 1937), and the Rallye du Soleil. Very rare, if originals, were the posters advertising the 1899 Automobile Club Show in the Old Deer Park at Richmond and E. Clouet’s about the Exposition de l’Locomotion of 1895. And naturally I was interested to see the painting by Louis Vallet, the famous French horse-racing painter who was born in 1856, of that lurid finish of a race at Brooklands which formed the cover of BARCrace-cards for so many years, because the original Vallet hangs in my house. Obviously painted at the request of Mr. Locke King to celebrate the opening of his new Motor Course, the horse-racing associations were typical of the formative days of the Track.

This poster exhibition was backed up by 20 steam-carriage prints of 1827 to 1834, many of them hand-coloured aquatints but including lithographs and etchings. Then there were the paintings, prints and drawings of a later period, 1900 to 1937, 93 in all, largely those of Gamy, Moutant, and Vincent but including those of Gordon Crosby, Georges Ham and Roy Nockolds. Here we found Gamy depicting Bablot’s Delage in the 1911 Coupes des Voiturettes Legeres race, a 1910 Locomobile racing in America (using a Splitdorf magneto), and Renault, Peugeot, La Licorne, and Excelsior cars (the last-named at Brooklands breaking the World’s 50-mile record) in various competitions, commissioned by commercial interests. The famous Moutant lithographs were prominent, Henri-Georges Meunier (1873-1922) contributed comic love scenes involving early cars, there were the other amusing paintings, of pioneer motorists crashing, scattering a wedding group, and held up by a flock of sheep, by Andre Nevil, done in 1905/6, and even some Heath Robinson comics. I noted that, apart from his well known Berliet catalogue illustrations, Vincent did such work for Peugeot, Mors, Delahaye, Renault, Hispano-Suiza, Georges-lrat and Michelin.

The exhibition was not confined to paintings and illustrations. There were radiator mas cots, ceramics and models. In the last-named category was what I thought the best item in the entire display. It was a large-scale model of Campbell’s 1912 OP Peugeot as raced at Brooklands. It was splendidly detailed, even to oil drip-sights, minor controls, springs-hangers, and real glass in the aero-screen. I had much admired such a model at the NMM at Beaulieu; whether this is the same one, acquired by Barron, I know not. It is said to have been made for Campbell by Rogers of Slough. Although they made lesser replicas of the Lambert Talbot, etc., in a silver finish and I believe some smaller-scale but very accurate models of the 350-h.p. Sunbeam in its long-tailed Pendine form, with non-steering front wheels, this Peugeot is a much more detailed model. Also covetable were the LSR models, of Campbell’s “Bluebirds” in 1927, 1931 and 1932 forms, the first by Leo Villa and his mechanics and wearing that “bentwire” sight on the radiator cowl, an advertising model of the 200-m.p.h. Sunbeam, and a rather tarnished “Golden Arrow”, all to a sensibly large scale. A Bentley half-model by March Models had been presented to S. C. H. Davis, as had a racing car in bronze by Gordon-Crosby given to Davis after he had crashed the lnvicta on the Mountain circuit, as a mark of respect from his colleagues on The Autocar. That bronze of De Caters on a GB Mercedes, a desk-set intended to be an Alfonso Hispano Suiza by Aristide Barr, an attempt at a Peugeot racing car in silver plate, and a nice little bronze of a Renault 45 with skiff body, this one originally given away by the makers probably, were among other notable models. Various race awards, including Targa Florio plaques, Gabriel and his stoneware Mors, and even teapots in the form of cars, lent variety. The mascots covered that intricate Ballot radiator emblem, a Minerva’s head, the Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy” (of course—but I was interested in a miniature of it, intended for an ashtray) even a Bruce Bairnsfither “Old Bill”. The Ballot mascot was mounted on a plinth and seems to have been presented to Campbell, presumably when he was racing these cars. Overshadowing all these, however, were 18 of those elegant glass adornments by Rena Lalique (1860-1945) that used to be sold in Great Portland Street in the mid-1930s for about a guinea each. Goodness knows what they would fetch today! An excellent 45p catalogue of this worthy exhibition was available and may still be obtainable from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which prepared the showing.—W.B.

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