Motoring Art Website

The art of uk motoring artists

Helck Clarence Peter

Year working: 1893 – 1988

It may come as a surprise to see Peter Helck’s details listed in this profile of UK working artists. Without doubt Peter Helck was the foremost American motoring and racing artist. However Peter Helck lived and worked in the UK on at least two occasions. The first visit was in late 1919 or early 1920 when he was working with Frank Brangwyn on a project for Fisk Tyres. Frank Brangwyn was one of the foremost UK artists of his time with far ranging talents from landscapes to portraits and murals often with an architectural theme and an outstanding use of colour. These strengths were also characterise the work of Peter Helck. After this initial visit he spent about a year in Spain, Morocco, Algiers, and Italy before returning to London. By March 1921 we start to see his work appearing in the UK magazine The Motor Owner for which he completed front cover designs. Here is an unpublished article about Helck's time in Europe. This was written circa 2000 and was intended to be published in The Automobile magazine.------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ In the February issue of The Automobile there was an article by David Burgess-Wise about a 1914 Mercer Raceabout. This highly original car had been part of the artist Peter Helck’s collection. David gave a brief introduction to Peter Helck with photographs of the artist and the Mercer. Who is the world’s greatest motoring artist? In the UK we would probably argue for Gordon Crosby, those in Germany would say Walter Gotschke, the French would vote for Geo Ham or Rene Vincent, whilst the Americans would say Peter Helck. If an overall worldwide vote was taken I am sure that Peter Helck would be the winner. Why is it that Helck is held in such high esteem by art collectors and artists alike? The main reason is the competency of his art which was not confined to motoring but included a whole range of fine art and advertising on diverse subjects. Also the motoring art was reproduced in his two excellent books, (Chequered Flag – Scribers 1961 & Great Auto Races- Abrams 1976), which have acted somewhat as a standard for motoring art reference. A third factor was his passionate interest in old cars and researching the history of the early motor races both within the USA and in Europe. As a collector of motoring art, I was familiar with his work and knew that he had visited Europe having studied under the famous British artist Frank Brangwyn. However, I was totally unaware of the volume of motoring art he produced whilst in the UK. My interest in Helck really started when I saw the Christies’ London sale catalogue for the 30th November 1998. In the sale was an original signed gouache painting of a Brooklands paddock scene, together with a pair of pen and ink layout drawings for General Motors UK advertising. The two draft ink sketches are endorsed on the reverse “Municipal Journal” and “Railway Journal”. The painting shows a Mercedes type Brooklands racer, surrounded by people. Unfortunately the white diaphanous dress of the lady with parasol in the foreground has faded slightly so it now appears that she is unclothed from the waist down! I was able to make contact with the vendor who was the son of artists Angus Hugh Munro and Muriel Grace Edgar. They sometimes combined talents on pieces, for example on some Wolseley Cars’ advertisements with Angus doing the car art whilst Muriel painted the backgrounds. Angus was a staff artist with The Motor Owner magazine where he worked alongside Helck. This was a high quality monthly that ran from July 1919 to May 1930, utilising some colour work including advertising. The cost of one shilling and six pence was several times that of The Motor and The Autocar hence circulation was very limited (and copies that have survived are very few). The magazine directly employed quality artists who prepared most of the advertising artwork for the clients. It is unlikely that Helck stayed with the Munros because Helck writing later in the American magazine – The Bulb Horn, says he lived in Hammersmith near to the Brangwyn studio whereas the Munros lived in Hampstead, North London. The Bulb Horn article by Helck entitled “Seventy–Five Years with Palette, Paintbrush and Wheels” is split over three 1991 issues of the magazine. This is an excellent article by Helck in which he describes his work, travels and philosophy from his childhood up to 1991. It is essential reading for any student of the artist. From his writings it is possible to determine that Helck came to the UK in late 1919 or early in 1920 to assist Brangwyn on a project for Fisk Tyres. He was here for about a year including a trip to Europe where he worked in Spain to finance his travels to Morocco, Algiers, Sicily, Italy and then back to London. He says that at the year end (1920) the Brangwyn painting arrived in New York and he followed shortly. Also he says that he had an interview with the Art Editor of The Motor Owner and this resulted in an order for six front cover designs. Working for the magazine also gave advertising work for clients such as Packard, Crossley, Napier and Sunbeam. One unusual advertisement was for the London agents of the Noma car. This was a good looking, short lived (1919 – 1923) American car. It is interesting to look at the art for The Motor Owner, particularly the front cover designs completed for March, May, June, July and August. The early covers are signed and dated for London. The August cover is significant in that it is signed and dated HELCK/New York/1921. If one allows for sea travel and printing times it is likely he had returned to New York in June 1921. And what of the sixth cover? It would appear that it was used in 1925 for a front cover as the art is signed and dated 1921! The advertising work for Packard UK is based on the famous American advertising theme of ‘Ask the Man Who Owns One’. This series was used for cars and trucks and was a superb series of bright colour studies of people and vehicles in day to day situations. Besides the wonderful colour work and advertisements produced for The Motor Owner there is another interesting piece of art that has survived from this visit. This is a self caricature found in an autograph type book signed and dated 13th August 1920. He was also working as an artist/journalist for American magazines such as the monthly Motor Life, and the lady Brooklands driver Miss Ivy Cummings proved to be the subject of an article. This resulted in Peter being driven at high speed round the track in her 30/98 Vauxhall. The impressions were also recollected in an article in Old Motor June 1967. Helck says he presented to Ivy Cummings a painting of the car at speed on the finishing straight. He says the painting was accepted as cover art by Motor Life but the article was rejected. Interestingly the cover of The Motor Owner for October 1920 features a Vauxhall crossing the finishing line. I wonder if this was the same painting? It is difficult from his published accounts to determine when he came back to the UK for a second time. In the Bulb Horn article he says that “Spain called again and so did England” and further on he mentions Brooklands in 1923. It would appear that he was in Europe from early 1923 into the beginning of 1924, however he did continental tours during this time completing works for Spanish publications. Besides working again for The Motor Owner he also worked for The Autocar producing three eye-catching front covers. – 11.9 Morris Cowley - 3rd August 1923, The Oakland – 7th December 1923 and 11.9 Morris Occasional Four - 7th March 1924. Also he was commissioned by The Autocar to sketch Brooklands scenes and these were contained in the issues 6th April, 25th May and 8th June 1923. The first one is headed “Paddock Personalities How the Brooklands Easter Race-Meeting Impressed an American Artist”. Whilst in England he submitted three works to the Royal Academy, one gaining acceptance. He says he also continued with full page drawings of Cockney characters for the Graphic and Bystander weekly magazines. This interest in characters such as cockneys and gipsies means they feature in many of his European works. Brangwyn also had a similar interest and it is said that he allowed gipsies to use some of his land so he could produce studies. It would seem that Helck did not to return to Europe until 1951 when he did a three month tour with his son Jerry and friends. There is no mention of working for clients in this period, but by visiting motor racing circuits he obviously gained reference material for later paintings. So what of Peter Helck’s art? He is probably best known for his large paintings of early American road racing, the most famous being eight paintings as part of the series of ‘Great Moments in American Sport’, completed for Esquire magazine in the late 1940’s. These paintings were expanded in number by prominent collectors of the time commissioning further similar works. His style of leaning cars and straining forward occupants builds on the speed feeling of early motoring photographs from focal plane shutter cameras. The spectators are always in motion, running, waving and cheering. He also utilises techniques of old newspapers with headlines about the race blowing around or race posters in prominent positions to provide atmosphere and information about the event. Flags, banners and signs also contribute to a very vibrant scene. The speed dust clouds were also a very important feature of his paintings and he did not have to rely on ‘speed lines’ like so many other artists to generate motion. These detailed almost frenetic paintings show the considerable development of his style from that the young man in London. The UK work shows the strong influence of Frank Brangwyn with the colour being the principal visual impact. Akin to this there is strong use of light and shade. The illustrations are almost static like snapshots in time. The simplification is a strong advertising technique producing a very powerful image. Later in life with failing eyesight his work again became less lively and flatter in colour and detail. Helck used the whole range of art media for his work; pencil, pen and ink, coloured inks, gouache, casein, oils, etchings and bronzes. His major works are always signed HELCK in bold capital letters sometimes with the date, and in the case of his European work sometimes with the place of painting. Smaller works often just have a letter H with prominent serifs. Preliminary sketches and some advertising work are often unsigned. Value always comes into question when examining an artist’s work. Large Helck road racing paintings have sold for over US$ 100 000 but that was some time ago. It is very difficult to predict what a major painting would realise in today’s times. Fortunately Helck did many preliminary sketches and smaller colour works. Smaller colour paintings will probably start at £2000, pen and ink drawings at £1000. The small detail pencil or pen and ink preliminaries commence at £200. Collectors have to be aware that Helck often worked up ideas on photocopies of a preliminary sketch using either pencil or pen and ink. It is sometimes difficult to determine how much of the art is original or photocopy. The value of these would be less than the figures above. Great numbers of prints of his paintings have been produced, these are of variable quality and are available for a few pounds upwards. In this article I have had a brief look at the work of one of the worlds most important automobile artists, concentrating on the work completed with a very small time period in his long and highly productive career. I have neglected the tremendous volume of award winning American advertising art produced during his lifetime across the whole spectrum of motoring and non-motoring clients. Also I should mention his historical research into early road racing both in America and Europe, a summary of this was given in his book ‘Great Auto Races’. Several articles could be written about his times as one of pioneer automobile collectors. Fortunately interest continues to grow and the family have now produced a website at which gives further details about the artist and his work. (The Helck memoires originally published in Bulb Horn are currently being added to the site). Grateful thanks to Tom Brierley for the image of the Brooklands Paddock scene.

Further reference

Great Auto Races by Peter Helck published by Abrams 1975 Checkered Flag by Peter Helck published by Scribner/ Castle 1961 Seventy-Five Years with Palette, Paintbrush and Wheels by Peter Helck published in The Bulb Horn magazine July August 1966 Peter Helck by Ken Browning published in Autographics magazine 1977 Peter Helck by Keith Marvin published in Automobile Quarterly Volume 27 #1 1989 Peter Helck American Master by Gary Doyle published in AFAS Journal #33 2007

Brooklands paddock scene painted for The Motor Owner 1920. Image courtesy of Tom Brierley

1933 TT with MGs at Dundonald an actual gouache painting

Motor Owner front cover June 1920

Motor Owner front cover July 1920

Motor Owner front cover October 1920

Motor Owner front cover May 1921

Packard advertisement in Motor Owner June 1920

Goodrich advertisement in Motor Owner July 1920

Packard advertisement in Motor Owner September 1920

Packard advertisement in Motor Owner March 1921

Original draft for General Motors advert in the Motor Owner Magazine

Original draft for General Motors advert in the Motor Owner

Autocar magazine front cover artwork

Autocar magazine front cover artwork December 1923

Autocar magazine front cover artwork March 1924

Helck signature dated 1920 in an English autograph book