The Fine Art of Motor Sport
F.Gordon Crosby 1885-1943.
F.Gordon Crosby is believed to have been born in Sunderland in 1885.He tragically committed suicide in 1943.He was known as a family man with children, a doyen and for his sartorial elegance.
Gordon Crosby was self-taught illustrator-artist- draughtsman; although he might have gained a high level of technical skill as a draughtsman apprentice in his hometown. It is thought that he pioneered the concept of the exploded drawing and the cutaway.
Gordon Crosby is renown for his scope; versatility and he also encompassed the occasional cartoon.
Gordon Crosby created a unique and easily recognisable style. He possessed an idiosyncratic use of light; perhaps best seen in his watercolours. He captured and distilled the drama and passion of pre-war racing in his trackside imagery. His work seemed to combine both technical and artistic merit that some consider superior to his peers. When viewed his work radiates passion, aggression, romance mixed with dynamic intensity and enormous vigour and vitality.
The author feels that in his best work as perhaps applies to all the greatest works of art his renderings are better than photographs. In particular they involve the viewer. This is a precious gift in that not all can be privileged to have the direct experience. Through his work the layman and enthusiast are permitted to participate; and of course this also helped sell the magazines. The viewer enters the picture and the imagery is so strong and powerful all the related sights sounds and smells become present as if you were there. Gordon Crosby was able to capture the special quality of night racing with lights ablaze.
In his work the author detects a slight sculptural quality.
Gordon Crosby was house artist at Iliffe; joining Autocar c 1907/08 .He was renown for being something of an enigma .He worked with Peter Grainer; who was to write a biography of Gordon [see details below]
Gordon is known to have worked in watercolours, charcoal with crayon, gouche , and oils but these were rare.
Gordon Crosby attempted a wide variety of subject matter; and it is felt that this deserves an appraisal and a selection of work will be described in more detail.
The art world seems to be influenced by a certain cultural snobbery. This manifests it self in criticism for certain art forms and artists possibly based on their content. Most in not all the artists mentioned in this series have not been highly regarded and even considered daubers .Its possibly that their work is perceived as lowbrow and journalistic illustration. Possibly because the work helped sell magazines it is considered tainted or perhaps even corrupted.
The author would seriously challenge this assumption. Some of the most highly regarded art works are very representational for example landscape and portraiture. The works of the Impressionists might be regarded for their content and the fact the artists both caught and reflected a fleeting moment of life in a poetic manner.
Turner in “Rain Wind and Speed “ made an early attempt at recording the drama of the new technology and its impressions on the public.
The author considers perhaps with a little controversy that Gordon Crosby might be considered amongst the artists of the Golden Age of Illustration. In his work I see shades of Arthur Rackham and his use of watercolour to achieve sublime luminosity.
In nearly every respect the works of Gordon Crosby achieve the same and on occasions exceed this. His technical merit certainly compares with many of the “masters”
Gordon Crosby’s achievements included designing the leaping Jaguar mascot for William Lyons, and poster commissions from Count Florio. It is believed that he may have also undertaken some commercial work for Bentley and M.G.
Six descriptive pieces help explain and articulate the creative and versatile genius of Gordon Crosby:
Meteors of the Road and Track Series – No.23: The 1926 Le Mans
Gordon Crosby was a considerable exponent of motoring drama, danger and romance. In some of his best work he combined racing and or night driving. Several of his most memorable works captured night racing at Le Mans.
One of these is the 1926 race; and Gordon Crosby has selected a pit stop. The Lorraine –Dietrich is being refuelled and the engine and or plugs checked.
Gordon Crosby’s portrayal is so lights from above illuminate utterly atmospheric .The pits; mechanics are outlined whilst other urgent support activities are suggested in the shadows.
The headlamps of the Lorraine –Dietrich remain on and out of the gloom of night the red
Two litre O.M. thunders by.
To the right of the picture the artist suggests the outline of stands shrouded in a deep ink blue night. With an isolated star hinting at the slow approach of dawn.
Gordon Crosby never fails to capture the era; its values and a little nostalgia of the time when machines still seemed to possess some soul and individual character. Driver and machine somehow more united and a time when perhaps conduct was more gentlemanly and an element of luck was appreciated
The artist’s skill is considerable. So much is contained yet so little is actually depicted. Perhaps this is a deliberate intention. The artists possible wants us to engage and to touch our emotions .to enter the picture and the spirit. He possess the gift of triggering a fuller experience and all our faculties become engaged not for what he has included but what he suggests. Reference to an essence seems to engage the psychology that we are able to provide and expand the scene, and to fill in detail that picture alone cannot convey. I believe that Gordon Crosby’s genius is that he enables the viewer to explore and almost move around inside the composition and allow the imagination is fullest capacity to translate and convey the full sensory stimulus beyond such as the time, temperature, aroma, ambience, weather and crescendo of racing engines and even the even the solitude and blanket of night far in the distance.
The race will go on. The viewer has been permitted to experience a brief, significant unfolding moment. What Gordon Crosby depicts is never static .He is a master at story telling of epic heroic ballads
Not all can afford or are able to have the direct personal experience of such dramatic events. In one sense Gordon Crosby’s work is very democratic .It extends out and reaches and touches. It shares in a profound way. Gordon Crosby has used his mighty talent to overcome an obstacle and made all those who experience his work a little richer and inspired. A noble achievement.
Lagonda chassis drawing
In this modest subject matter, Gordon Crosby executes the work with consummate ability and renders the car the quality that its manufactures aspired to.
For the author in this sketch/ drawing Gordon Crosby displays his mastery of the subject and how best it should be rendered. It radiates quality, elegance, and workmanship and suggests form that the chassis will deliver. It is relatively easy to imagine the chassis “clothed”.
In the foreground the proud upright radiator is distinctive. Suspension detail is accurately recorded, as are the carburettors. The artist uses light and shade to perfection as a means of picking out highlights of the chrome and polished components surfaces. Gordon Crosby technical mastery enables him to convey the texture of the varying materials from the chrome headlamps, polished cam covers or the steering wheel rim.
The chassis sits presence it self a work of art and its as if Cordon Crosby has rejoiced in its engineering elegance and rendered the picture with a loving care and empathy as if he had been privileged to have been in its presence and drawn it.
The “M.G. Girl”
Once again in this work Gordon Crosby demonstrates his talent, versatility and empathy with the subject matter. For all the power and thundering guts of much of his work here the artist capture femininity with allure but without sentimentality. In many respects it speaks reams of the era and early emancipation of women. The lady driver is the central point and purpose or object of the composition. She gases directly at the viewer with charm displaying an understated poetry. Like other good works it conveys more and the subtext is subtly portrayed and this involves fashion equality and equal enjoyment and access to the open road with sporting intentions. For the era it is perhaps quite advanced marketing and requires someone of Gordon Crosby’s genius to convey so much with a reference to the product its potential and appropriateness.
It’s subtle, very subtle. And these messages are sent without relying on the moving image or sound for reinforcement.
The New Earls Court Building 1938
In this easily recognisable scene [London landmark] Gordon Crosby depicts the dramatic new bold architecture is strong and powerful it reaches out of the frame into the night sky.
Gordon Crosby renders the scene in the very characteristic English rain. He uses the weather condition to artistic effect. The picture is animated with busy London traffic and humane bustle and jostles pedestrians dodging the downpour of a late evening shower. The nightfall and street lighting accentuate the atmospheric composition. Gordon Crosby has captured to perfection the quintessential English mood moment and manners in the body language and season. The rains gloss is picked up and reflects on surfaces and the hard chrome of passing cars radiator surrounds and hubcaps.
The Motor show is almost depicted as Hollywood, with a hint of celebrities, optimism, and fashion, and achievement, excitement mixed with a little anticipation.
Once again Gordon Crosby tells a story beyond the immediate representation of the scene. This is not mere picture postcard photography. He has succeeded in capturing a moment in history and distilling it. Perhaps to through the picture we can have an inner glimpse of the artist a warm humanitarian with great versatility and technical virtuosity; a person for whom the visual representation makes visual stories and even poetry.
“Continental Touring” [Autocar c 1934]
Continental touring was fashionable and for the inset almost derigueur for the pre-war period,
It was one of Gordon Crosby’s favourite subjects. This work is an incarnation of the essence of fast touring and road racing with a riding mechanic. This particular work is all the more impressive as it has been executed with a limited palette. The composition has been foreshortened to increase the visual impact of speed and the charging car will almost immediately plunge over a precise like a waterfall.
The picture depicts an imaginary high-powered car with splayed cambered splayed wire wheels. The elongated loved bonnet with external exhaust .The driver and riding mechanic compact couched low below the aero screens racing quick release petrol filler on the boat tail.
The “team” and car animal like tare and bellow through the mountains almost precipitating an avalanche in their wake. Despite the power and determination they are portrayed almost dwarfed by nature and the onward pull of the mountains.
The team are presented like explorers or mountaineers or aviators caught in the rarefied chilled high altitude air.
The artist’s restricted palette helps accentuate the mood, chalk capturing the frosted airstreams and gleam from the chrome instrument bezels. White also enlightens the composition and suggests the perspective into he distance and the range yet to be conquered.
It’s almost possible to hear the exhaust rebound from the cliff edge and for a split second read the instruments. The imagery almost Viking like the car cresting mountains like the longboat.
In the middle distance a long straight ribbon of road passes through dense pine forest that comes right up to the edge of the road. The sky is dark and there are many miles to cover yet. There is also solitude and unspoken thoughts and loyalty, trust between the men as they forge forward.
The driver looks down the long louved bonnet, headlamps set low and symmetrical. Cambered wheels and heavy ribbed helmet mudguards of the cycle type surmounted by pencil like torpedo sidelights allow the wheels to be seen bucking as the fight for grip.
The racing mechanic alert, vigilant reads the road and studies the instruments an empathetic ear records the engine and rejoices in its rugged reliability. Cowered down he attempts to gain a minimum of protection and gain a little heat form the engine and possibly the exposed gearbox within the confines of the cockpit.
The boat tail truncated in the composition only serves to emphasise the speed and movement. The huge quick release filler cap hints that the tail contains only a large capacity tank. The artist’s uses chalk highlight or possibly the paper to reflect the hard cold light as the possibility of dusk draws on and temperatures fall
The viewer picks up on the ambient temperature, the assault on the senses the wind-chill, determination and concentration.
Once again Gordon Crosby uses allegory and in this scene the author is reminded of several pieces of music and poetry not least “ How They Brought Good News from Ghent to Aix ” by Robert Browning.
“Highlands ?”. No title given but image in Classic and Sports Car -December 1990 p131 Title page Gordon Crosby: His Life and Work
This work s so redolent of the era that Gordon Crosby captured so well.
It is also steeped I historical significance. The interwar period experienced the extremes of wealth and poverty, the growth in the ownership of the motorcar and the move from Internationalism to Nationalism.
This work should perhaps be counterpoised with that of the piece above Continental Touring. Whereas this piece speaks of the isolation and rejoicing in our own secure domestic scene, Continental is full on blood and guts post haste. Gordon Crosby however can handle both subjects with equal merit and subtlety.
For a period the rich were able to undertake Continental touring. Monaco and the French Rivera were their destinations. The era was possibly one of the most romantic in motoring terms. It may have had overtones of the 18c Grand Tour. However with the spread of nationalism and the treat of war much continental travel was restricted. A new generation of motorists rediscovered their own country.
This era has been particularly well captured by H.V.Morton in his “Search for … Series” [see book review to follow]. These travel guides start in the late 1920’s and continued through the 1930’s.Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” being graphic with some very attractive near poetic word pictures and atmospheric descriptions.
The Gordon Crosby watercolour expresses these sentiments to near perfection.
In the foreground a lone driver has climbed from his touring car and sits on a jagged rock and looks to the distant horizon over meandering moorland and mountain that melts into the heather tinted sky.
The scene is desolate and rather magnificent in its isolation. There are no houses; no towns no smoke no factories.
The road runs seemingly onward like a ribbon into the distance serpentine cutting through the gorse bracken and heather fording streams .the suggestion being that the driver has taken a break near a sign post to absorb the closing embers of the day as dusk approaches. The picture suggests the connection or bond of man, machine and nature. Joint travellers and their shared empathy and the receding horizon.
The picture has a sort of loneliness and quite solitude. It is optimistic and warm colours of purple heather bleed throughout.
The inference is that the driver will soon resume his journey; the signpost will guide his journey. There will be crystal clear sparking moorland streams to cross or run along side the road and grouse will fly low overhead.
Although not depicted the artist suggests that stoic Highland cattle will graze the wild untamed moorland down to the water edge or lock hidden from view.
These images of serenity are of a country soon to be changed by War but they also the indelible images of a country and freedom that soldiers fought to preserve. We should take a quite moment to look into this picture and reflect.
“The Art of Gordon Crosby “ by peter Grainer.
rt Bentley Inc