A charming collection of paintings, drawing and writing much of it born of cycling
Webb and Bower 0863503292 176pp £15.95
Reg Gammon might be only the second-best known English cycling illustrator, but he led a fuller and more interesting artistic life than Frank Patterson, to whom he was apprenticed before the First World War. And unlike Patterson, he was a cyclist himself and for 60 years wrote a ‘Nature Notes’ column in the CTC Gazette.
This book, published when he was 96, collects work produced from throughout his life. Drawing on the vast stock of his journalism, 40 or 50 pieces have been segued together to create a kind of fragmentary autobiography. The text is interspersed with his black and white illustrations and there are 24 pages of colour works.
His passion for the countryside jumps from the page – whether it is the flora and fauna he remembers from his Victorian childhood, or the working methods of the Welsh hill farm to which he turned himself when the Second World War destroyed the periodical market from which he earned his living.
To judge from his writing, what he saw while cycling was his real passion, rather than the cycling itself. He has a fond eye for details and an interest in the ‘old ways’ that just keeps on the right side of sentimentality. He also recounts at least some of his pedalling pleasures – as a childish means of escape and adult holidays with his wife.
“There was a time when miles covered seemed to be the important part of a tour: the greater the distance covered each day, by so much was my pleasure multiplied. If those miles included a quick scramble over a well-known castle or other landmark, I felt I’d done pretty well. But quite soon I discovered that so far as I was concerned there was more to the cycling game than that – more of lasting benefit and interest to be gained from riding in the lanes and byways of Britain and Ireland.
“Lacking opportunity for club riding, I did much lone riding, and I am still inclined that way. I like to cycle quietly along, or to loaf about and sit on a bridge to watch the trout in the water below. If not alone, I like a companion who knows the value of silence in the presence of such beauty. Most artists hate being overlooked when they are working, and as I share this feeling to a marked degree it accounts in large measure for my preference”.
The illustrations give some idea of why he was a success as a commercial artist. The black and white pieces are generally from his time as an illustrator. He could turn out eye-catching pen and inks, or water colours on almost any subject. The colour plates showcase his remarkable third career as a painter. Retiring after 20 years of farming, shortly before he was 70, Gammon turned to oils. Originally a success in the west country, he had his first and second one-man shows in London in his mid-90s.
A full-sized folio of his work would do it more justice than the very modest reproductions that this format allows. Nonetheless, the power of his colours and his eye for a scene are obvious.
Speaking to Christian Tyler of The Financial Times in 1991 he said: “Half the battle of painting is observation, constant observation. You see those articles I did were weekly articles. Well, you’ve got to notice enough – no flamboyant stuff allowed – you’ve got to be on the watch for something all the time.”
He went on: “Painting comes out from inside. It’s intuitive. This colour is intuitive, there’s no question about that. It can’t really be taught. If a person hasn’t got the feeling to know whether the thing is right or wrong I don’t think it can be acquired, to tell you the truth. I’m attracted by red. There’s red in nearly all my pictures. I use cadmium scarlet, a beautiful red, and glaze it with Indian yellow or Italian pink. It’s the colour that sells the pictures – and the content, and of course composition. You’ve got to learn composition; otherwise you might as well give up.”
Gammon died in 1997 at 103 – short of the millennium that he had hoped to celebrate. Surely the knowledge that such a touching and enduringly readable collection of work had been published before the end must have been a considerable consolation for not quite seeing out the twentieth century?
TD Nov 11
Gammon’s obitury from The Independent is here,