Geo Ham, The Prince of Speed.

Geo Ham, The Prince of Speed. George Hamel, better known as Geo Ham, was one of the most well known and best loved of the poster illustrators between the wars, and an enormous influence on my own work. His Monaco posters from the thirties and forties are probably his best known work, and are still among the most popular of the reproduction vintage motor racing poster market. Original prints of these posters sell through major auction houses and fetch prices of tens of thousands of pounds. The image featured above for the 1934 Monaco Grand Prix told the viewer everything they need to know at a glance: the simple, well designed text gave the event and date, and the illustration showed the sun blushed elegance of the Grand Casino, the tranquillity of the Mediterranean and the dynamic, thundering power and speed of the approaching racing cars. Thrilling.

Hamel was born in the medieval French town of Laval, in the Loire Valley, on 18 September 1900. His passion for speed probably began when he was eleven years old and he witnessed an aeroplane landing close to the town. Then just two years later he saw a race organized for cars and motorcycles in Laval, and he was hooked for life. At the age of eighteen George Hamel moved to Paris and attended the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, and two years later he had an illustration published on the front cover of the car magazine ‘Omnia’ which he signed with his new pseudonym Geo Ham.

He began getting his illustrations and fine art published on a regular basis by 1923, particularly in the magazine L’Illustration, and by the 1930s was already established as the finest in his field. He was also a prolific book illustrator and worked as a press reporter on motor racing events and aeronautic displays. Geo Ham was commissioned to create the now iconic Art Deco paintings, prints and posters for the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and many other prestigious European Races. A highlight of his life was competing in the 1934 Le Mans race in a 2 litre Derby L8, and although fuel problems forced his withdrawal, the experience only added to his passion for racing art.

Geo Ham continued to illustrate cars, planes and motorcycles well into the early 1960s. But by this time photography began to replace painting as the illustration of choice among advertisers and publishers, and gradually the name of Geo Ham “The Prince of Speed” became forgotten.

He died in June 1972, and only twelve people attended his funeral.

His influence on my own work can be clearly seen in the Alfa Romeo Le Mans poster here, the Alfa Romeo 2300 poster here, the Bentley Le Mans poster here, and The Bugatti Type 51 Monaco poster here.

The 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible Coupe poster.

The beautiful 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible coupe, designed by Cadillac’s chief designer Bill Mitchell, is one of the most desired of all Cadillacs, as few of the 3,100 manufactured remain today, and because it is one of the last pre-war Cadillac convertibles ever built. The US entered World War II on December 8, just hours after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, forcing an industry-wide conversion to the manufacture of war materials. General Motors halted automobile production altogether on February 4, 1942.

I saw this fabulous car at a street festival in Detroit, Michigan last summer and could not resist taking a number of reference shots for the archive, and on which, eventually, to base this drawing. It was in absolutely mint condition and original in all aspects. To me this car is quintessentially American.

This detailed airbrush illustration represents a slight change in direction for my poster styles and one that I intend to maintain in the future, and I’m currently working on a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette, although that might be some time coming. Please click on the images to enlarge. You can find more details of this poster here.

The Art Deco wedding poster

The popularity of the vintage wedding is such an exciting recent development, and earlier this year my good friends Emma and James enjoyed what was unquestionably the wedding of the year, and to celebrate the event I produced this poster in their honour. It is a fusion of the two characters from my Martini posters featured in a couple of earlier posts here and here, but for this new incarnation I have changed the Martini glass to champagne glasses, slipped wedding rings onto their fingers and put a smile on their lovely faces.

I intend to produce bespoke versions of this idea, maybe taking in the Bal De La Couture design as well, as a celebratory product in the near future, and make it available for next year’s brides and grooms to order. I shall probably create a new category on the website exclusively for vintage wedding posters and cards. I’m sure there must be a demand out there somewhere. Please watch this space.

Batiste Madalena: forgotten master of the movie poster.

Batiste Madalena was an American illustrator who enjoyed just four years in the sun between 1924 and 1928 before disappearing into obscurity, only to have his work rediscovered forty-five years later by a Californian documentary film maker.

In 1924 Italian born Madalena was studying art at the Mechanics Institute, later to become the Rochester Institute of Technology, at a time when a talent scout for the inventor and photographic manufacturer George Eastman was searching for an artist to produce posters to promote the silent movies soon to be shown at his newly built 3,000 seat Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York. Clearly Eastman was very persuasive because this extraordinarily talented young man abandoned his art classes to work exclusively for the Eastman Theatre, without assistants, creating eight posters a week for four years at $4.50 per poster.

George Eastman disliked the publicity material that was sent from the studios, so Madalena’s brief was to produce these hand-painted posters every week, each one different and measuring 44” x 22” to fit the eight glass covered display cases around the main entrance to the theatre. The posters were to be simple and striking enough to be seen from the trolley cars stopping across the road from the theatre at the major intersection of Main and Gibbs. Batiste said, “The trolley was pretty far away, so the posters had to be big, not fancy and finicky. The point was to get people to cross the street and stop for a while at the Eastman.” He worked from black and white publicity photographs supplied by the movie studios, without sight of the movie itself, producing posters in bold, invented colours with beautifully realised hand-lettered titling. Then in 1928 Mr. Eastman sold his theatre to the Paramount-Publix chain and Madalena was dumped along with his artworks.

It was only by pure chance one evening when he was cycling home in the rain from the YMCA past the rear of the theatre, that Batiste saw all of his original paintings thrown out for the garbage collectors. Devastated and angry he attempted to salvage as many as he could, but being gouache on art board the rain had taken its toll and most of the 1400 pictures were totally destroyed. But he managed to get 225 of the artworks home and he and his wife worked most of the night trying to dry what remained of four years work, which he stored away in his attic for safe keeping.

In 1973 his daughter entered a number of the pictures in a local art show being held in the lobby of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company on East Main Street, and by chance film maker Steven Katten, during a break in a nearby convention he was attending, happened to wander in and was struck by the superb quality of these pictures. Six years later he and his lawyer wife Judith bought the entire collection along with the copyright. Over the subsequent thirty years they managed to get the work shown in galleries throughout California, then across America and finally, in 2008, twenty years after the artist’s death, getting a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Batiste Madalena’s reputation was established. You can view a short YouTube film giving the background to the MOMA exhibition here.

But what might have been?

At art school Madalena was clearly a free thinking student, and an admirer of the graphic design work of such great European modernists as Ludwig Hohlwein (see the 1913 Kaffee Hag poster on the left) and Lucian Bernhard (see the 1914 Bosch spark plugs poster below), who were working in Germany before the First World War. This must have been quite unusual when one considers that his principal tutor at the Mechanics Institute was the very conservative and influential advertising artist J. C. Leyendecker, who set the style for American commercial illustration for decades to come, and was a major influence on the work of Norman Rockwell.

In 1924 Madalena won a scholarship to the very liberal Art Students League of New York, a relatively new establishment reflecting many young artists’ dissatisfaction with the conservative instruction offered by other schools. One of the leading lecturers here at the time was the great American muralist Thomas Hart Benton, and among its students were Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and later Jackson Pollock. But before he could take his place at the Art Students League the very persuasive approach from George Eastman manifested itself and Madalena turned his back on further study, choosing instead to take up Eastman’s offer.

The posters that Madalena went on to produce for Eastman showed a remarkable understanding of the modernist principles of the European art deco movement, which was itself only just beginning to gel as a unified group in 1925, the year of the huge Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. This same year Madalena produced a poster for the movie ‘The Thundering Herd’ (shown on the left) which was pure art deco, a style that was cutting edge modern and almost completely unheard of in America. Indeed when the United States were invited by the organisers to contribute a pavilion at the Paris exhibition they declined, Herbert Hoover explaining that this was because there was no modern art in America.

There is, of course, no way of telling what might have happened had he taken up his scholarship at the Art Students League, but consider the contrast in fortunes between Madalena and Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Born Edward Kauffer in Montana he moved to San Francisco at the age of twenty to work in a bookstore and study art at the California School of Design between 1910 and 1912. By some chance a professor at the University of Utah, Joseph McKnight became aware of Kauffer’s work, sponsored him and paid to send him to Paris for further study. (In gratitude Kauffer took his sponsor’s name as a middle name). After two years study Kauffer moved to London where he remained for most of his career producing what have become some of the most famous and well-loved posters of the twentieth century for clients like Shell and the London Underground (see 1930 poster on the right).

On such matters of chance are lives turned. What if? What if Madalena had gone to New York to study art in 1924? What if he’d not cycled past the back of the Eastman theatre on that rainy night in 1928? What if Steven Katten hadn’t wandered into the lobby of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company in 1973? So we have a small part of Batiste Madalena’s output, and for that we should be thankful. But I for one cannot help thinking of what could have been.

The Martini man.

This Martini poster, one of a pair (see the Martini girl here), features a male character in formal dress, top hat worn at a rakish angle, and a pierrot’s white face staring out of the picture. The influence for this motif is the Commedia Dell’Arte figure of the unworldly clown who loses his innocence. Commedia dell’Arte was a humorous theatrical presentation performed by professional players who travelled in troupes throughout Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. But the popularity of the commedia began to fade in the eighteenth century until a revival of interest was sparked in the early part of the twentieth century by the paintings of Cezanne (‘Le Clown’ shown on the left) and Picasso, and the music of Stravinsky (Pulcinella) and Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire). The latter tells the story of an innocent, moonstruck Pierrot who becomes sexually educated at the hands of a servant girl, Columbine, the situation being orchestrated by a domineering Brighella. (On the right is a scene from Glen Tetley’s 1962 ballet ‘Pierrot Lunaire’  performed by The Royal Ballet Company.)

The art deco movement was also quick to pick up on this revival and soon it became extremely influential in the designs of the period.

My Martini man is that same pale-faced Pierrot after the fall, dressed to kill and wearing a very confident, knowing expression as he sips his Martini, all the time gazing unerringly into the viewer’s eyes.

The lettering, as in the Martini girl poster, is hand drawn based on designs by the brilliant Dutch typographic artist of the early 1920s, Antoon Kurvers. Further details of this and other posters in my collection can be found here.

1928 Aston Martin International poster

I’ve always seen this poster as a very English design, and I have stolen the headline from that quintessentially English novel ‘The Wind In The Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908. In this passage from chapter two Toad is trying to persuade (or perhaps coerce) Ratty and Mole to join him in an adventure in his latest acquisition, a gipsy caravan. He stands proudly in the stable-yard at Toad Hall and declares, “Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!” But he will soon be abandoning the caravan in a ditch, having just been driven off the road “with a blast of wind and a whirl of sound” by a speeding automobile, and by the end of the chapter Toad has “ordered a large and very expensive motor-car.”

In this Aston Martin poster I have illustrated, in a very English style, a more gentle approach to motoring pleasure than that envisaged by Toad, but at the same time creating an image evoking the freedom of the open road, something very close to Mr Toad’s heart.

For further details of this and other posters in my collection please navigate here.

The Martini girl.

In the nineteen-twenties and thirties the avant garde art movements in Europe came under the enormous influence of exotic imagery from all over the World, with the arts of Africa and Japan appearing in important exhibitions in Paris, and new Archaeological discoveries, like the unearthing of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922, made headline news and the great artists of the day became enchanted by the rich colours and distinct angular shapes presented by ancient Egypt.

The decorative arts designers of the time also fell under the spell of these cultures and were quick to incorporate these fascinating and romantic motifs into their creations, including architecture, furniture, jewellery and advertising.

In this Martini poster I have taken the motif of the sphinx of Giza and that of the death mask of the boy king Tutankhamun to create the ‘headdress’ for a rather austere character that Great_Sphinx_of_Gizalooks straight into the viewer’s eyes whilst cooly sipping a Martini cocktail. I have additionally attempted to persuade the viewer to follow the green circle plucked from the ‘O’ in Vermouth, to the large stone (Serpentine?) of her ring, on to the olive in the glass, and finally resting on the cool gaze of her eyes and then all the way back again to the product.

The lettering is hand drawn based on designs by the brilliant Dutch typographic artist of the early 1920s, Antoon Kurvers. Further details of this and other posters in my collection can be found here.