one of the more notable aspects of road racing are the stories to be told and the narratives to be related. it's the very reason we are party to so many periodicals concerning the history, drama, and passion engendered by each successive year's racing. the races, pat mcquaid's bid for world domination not withstanding, may well remain the same year in, year out, but the riders are in constant flux, as are the jerseys and bicycles. so even as we approach the 2013 spring classics at exactly the same time as we did last year, the variables have changed; not necessarily for the better or the worst, but simply changed. it's what keeps the sport fresh and its aficionados likewise.
modernity can be examined in such exquisite detail; everyone's a photographer or film-maker these days thanks to the complexity of what used to be known as a phone, allied to the now ubiquitous social media. for those bereft of access to a televisual feast of european racing, follow the right folks on twitter, and you can be sure one of them will be tweeting a blow by blow account of the proceedings. to harness a well-worn saying, 'we've never had it so good'.
but what this incessant technological development has a propensity to ignore is the ambience; the imagination, if you will. for in the days of yore, when a telephone was still something used to talk to each other, communications were a tad more rudimentary, and the speed of light still had far more to do with the theories of albert einstein than the time-lapse between action and the recording of same. so, as has been testified elsewhere, the reports alluding to a day's racing may well have had as much to do with joining dots than a pinpoint accuracy of detail.
newspaper column inches had to be filled, for in many cases, that's the very reason certain road-races had come to fruition in the first place; to sell newspapers. so while we can now watch every minute and second of each tour stage or cobbled chase, the early years of racing were less well accurately documented, not through lack of application on the documenters, but due simply to the technological wherewithal available. such situations could conceivably have given rise to a degree of melodramatic inventiveness. there are few who would doubt this to be the case, and even fewer who would deny that this inventiveness has had a significant bearing on cycling's great heritage.
if only, i can hear myself say, there was someone who could add a visual element to such cycling mythology. and, of course, there is; his name is peter english.
a graphic designer to trade, peter has extended his innate skill to provide us with (currently) five individual prints that pay tribute to road cycling's early years, incorporating one or two of the legendary tales that have filled many of the volumes regarding the sport's history. while football and rugby fans could doubtless argue till the cows come home over which owns the right to refer to their own preference as the beautiful game, there really is no discussion necessary as to which is the beautiful sport. the latter is a factor encapsulated in each and every one of peter english's illustrations.
it gives me no pleasure to admit that, until a week or two ago, i would have counted myself amongst those completely ignorant of peter's artworks. in all the years i have been inhabiting my own cosy little corner of the social media world, i have never once come across any mention of his work under the umbrella of ingo art. how long has he been producing such fabulous illustrations?
"Just for the past two years really. I've been a graphic designer for 30 odd years and occasionally had to produce illustrations which I enjoyed, so over the years I've developed this strong, bold, colourful look which I thought would be ideal for cycling related work. Working part-time also gives me more time to pursue this."
it's not so very long ago that i made mention of a lack of bicycle drawings amongst the children in the care of mrs washingmachinepost, a fact that i am putting down to the difficulty of rendering in crayon on paper or even on a megasketch. i don't mind admitting that i too struggle somewhat in getting the proportions correct, though at least i can manage to place the chainset on the correct side. though i doubt there's any particular subject that is easy to draw or paint, does peter ever find it a struggle to achieve the level of detail in each of his paintings, or do they simply roll off the brush (so to speak)?
"Getting the idea is the easiest thing, then the struggle begins! I find drawing bikes and riders correctly, one of the most difficult things to achieve from scratch, without copying. I suppose I can get away with a lot as it's not a particularly serious style, but I usually do loads of 'thumbnail' sketches to get the composition right. Then I start drawing the individual parts, till they're as good as I can get them."
read through any history of the tour de france or of the great classics, and it's possible to accumulate numerous anecdotes, perhaps originally true, but stories that have developed lives of their own and become somewhat larger than life. an enhanced reality, perchance. are each of his illustrations based on factual happenings, or are they the result of his fertile imagination?
"In 'Where Eagles Dare' there is a poor chap being hauled up a mountain side using a string of tubs. That actually happened, but generally speaking I've tried to steer clear of specific events and characters, so most of it is made up. But it could be true, if you see what I mean. I've soaked in all those cycling stories since I was young and there are so many epic tales, particularly as you go back in the history of cycling and it's not hard to come up with something that has an element of truth in it."
peter english's work reminds me of nothing more than the original illustrations for herge's adventures of tin tin, and i mean that as a serious compliment. for while none carry a blatant level of humour, there is a subtle hint of the cartoon about them, a feature that i believe makes them far more desirable in their own right. however, within their individualistic historical realms, the bicycles and following vehicles display an admirable degree of accuracy. does peter endeavour to make these as period accurate as possible?
"I do try to get them as accurate as possible. Each of these latest prints are based on a particular time period. For instance 'Shake Rattle And Roll' is around 1910 so I had to research a motor vehicle and bikes from that period. The bikes had these strange front brake pads which clamped onto the top of the front wheel and they had single speed transmission. In 'Yellow Fever' I originally had an Italian Alfa Romeo as a following vehicle, but as I wanted a French feel, I changed it to a Tour-issue Jeep so I could put the French plaque on the front.
"Google is excellent for quick answers and I have books and magazines to help with research."
the very best of the modern day breed of cycling photographers can achieve a mood in their images, through composition and attention to overall colour. the contemporary tour de france has become so much of a mobile circus, and the peloton a riot of sponsored colour, that it must be hard to avoid imagery that resembles an explosion in a dulux factory. however, it is down to the skill of the artist to achieve a homogeneity of colour in his/her images that reinforces the subject matter depicted.
in the case of peter english's art, the colour and mood are quite magnificent, as indeed are the compositional qualities. does he have an overall atmosphere in mind at the commencement of each, or do they simply turn out that way?
"I have an idea of what I want regarding atmosphere before I start. The first print I did - 'Cycle Of Life' - I wanted it to be a typical Sunday morning meeting point with a wide range of ages from the old experienced, 'seen it all, been there, done that' riders, to the young hopefuls just starting out. I also wanted to go beyond the usual bike stuff so I added a statue looking up to the mountains to add a spiritual dimension. I've no idea how the colours are going to turn out, so that part just evolves as I go along. Cycling is such a colourful sport so you can't go wrong."
more usually in this day and age, it's possible to build a reputation in a relatively short space of time. the internet allows that. in my days of being a world-famous artist, i had about four paintings wrapped in a sleeping bag while wandering around the streets of edinburgh, hoping that a gallery owner would take pity on me, or recognise that i was about to become the next big thing. yet despite all mod cons, i'm willing to bet that, along with yours truly, this is the first notice you've had of the works of peter english. is he cycling art's best kept secret?
"I haven't done much to promote myself really; a couple of cycling friends have helped on that side, I just concentrate on getting ideas and developing the work. It may fizzle out or I might fizzle out first!"
if there is any justice left, fizzling out will not be an option. all peter's works are available in two distinct sizes and formats; printed on a3 card at a cost of £12.99 or a 588mm x 415mm limited edition giclee print for £49.99. debbie's is soon to play host to one or two on the wall of the cycling corner. quite superb.
you know you want to.
sunday 10th march 2013..........................................................................................................................................................................................................