London: The Art of Cycling

This article was originally published in the December 2014 edition of London Cyclist

Cycle art’s renaissance is as exciting as it is ubiquitous. Much coveted Tour de France posters by Adrian Johnson for TfL didn’t just sell out, but had to be reprinted three times. Artist Andrew Pavitt found he ran out of his bike prints at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Eliza Southwood’s show at Look mum no hands! was another sell-out. David Sparshott offers not one or two, but several dozen cycling prints.

Art that includes bicycles is now so popular that it no longer just features as a single item in an exhibition; there are several special shows in London devoted exclusively to cycle art.

Coincidentally, the revival of cycle art comes exactly a century after its first great moment in 1913-1914, when surrealist Marcel Duchamp made his first wheel-fork-stool ‘readymade’ and futurist Giacomo Balla painted his ‘Abstract Speed and Sound’ capturing the movement of a cyclist in shapes and colour.

Not surprisingly, the 21st-century explosion of cycle art comes close on the pedals of London’s actual cycling renaissance. Art students at colleges like Central St Martin’s and London College of Communications were among the first to embrace the New York courier-led fixed wheel fashion as a transport mode. And they were quick to incorporate cycles in their work.

The Design Museum pioneered a track bike display back in the early noughties. And by 2005 there were enough cycle-enthused arts and design graduates to stage the first, packed, high ‘cycle fashion’ show in hip Shoreditch. In Minneapolis, across the pond, the first ArtCrank exhibition in 2007 attracted five times the number of visitors it expected.

ArtCrank arrived in London five years ago and its 2014 show, at the fashionable Granary in Kings Cross (next door to Central St Martin’s School of Art), was buzzing with hundreds of guests on its first night.

And ArtCrank is not alone: Spin, the London-based urban bike show, includes artists as well as bike makers. While newcomer Spoke’s successful London summer 2014 exhibition has prompted a second one this December.

Driving the shows, and the sales, are creative artists — invariably people who cycle themselves — and we spoke to four of them.

Eliza Southwood

Her distinctive cycling prints and posters have brought Eliza Southwood acclaim and success that she may have never known if she’d continued working as an architect on developments in Saudi Arabia. Then in her thirties, and disillusioned with cutbacks on the sustainable aspects of architectural projects she was working on, Southwood turned to what she had always wanted to do — becoming an artist.

Brought up with little money in London, Worcestershire and a remote village in Spain (where she moved at age 8 because her mother decided to improve her Spanish), Southwood has long had artistic inclinations. At 13 she provided illustrations for a children’s book written by one of her teachers (many years later she discovered that it had been published). But her choice of architecture rather than fine art as a career path was motivated by the prospect of an income that pure art could not guarantee.

Back in the UK she completed her architectural studies at the Glasgow School of Art and worked as an architect for several years before making the switch to fine art and print-making. As an artist she likes to do series of prints and featuring bikes seemed an obvious choice (birds is the other favourite).

She has always commuted by bike and remembers buying her first one at 16 with money she’d earned herself. It was bright red, she recalls — a colour choice which dismayed her Spanish boyfriend of the time.

When she took her first bike print series to Look mum no hands!, the newly-established cycling café in Old Street in 2010, they were impressed enough to offer her a show — which, to her surprise, was a sell-out.

Assorted commissions followed — the V&A asked for a print, a US blog article resulted in several private commissions. Posters commissioned for the Orbital Cycling Festival and Brompton World Championship captured the retro feel of the moment, as well as earning her a titanium Brompton that she prizes along with her 1980’s Eddy Merckx road bike.

Among her influences Southwood cites Bronwen Sleigh, Ben Nicholson, Bob Law and Idris Kahn — all artists tending to the abstract. Yet curiously when visiting her Hackney (where else?) studio, we noticed one print of a cyclist in a forest that triggered memories of a painter we’d once met. “Had she heard of someone called Adrian Berg?” we asked. “That’s who inspired the work,” was the instant reply. The colour palette and busy nature of the print unmistakeably echoed Berg’s impressionistic Regent’s Park oils, though both subject matter and technique were quite different.

The abstract influences that Southwood mentions are more evident in the work of her ’alter ego’, Red Girling, than in her cycle art. Southwood says her giant canvases are not nearly as popular as her cycle art, but she enjoys the opportunity to do the abstracts.

Asked about the popularity of cycle prints Southwood says she has found that partners of the ever-growing number of keen cyclists will often be attracted by the subject matter and buy them as gifts.

Like most contemporary cycle artists Southwood has more projects in play. Up next is a Bicycle Travel Journal for publisher Laurence King. She says it will challenge you with questions as you work your way through it. It’s due for publication in 2016.

Prints from £35; elizasouthwood.com


Adrian Johnson

Johnson has long been an admirer of the golden era of London poster art from the 1950s and 1960s when the London Underground roundel graced an explosion of what are now considered iconic images by artists like Abram Games and Tom Eckersley. He’s chuffed that he has now become a part of that history.

His 1950s-influenced overhead image of Tour de France riders for the London stage of this year’s event was snapped up on the Transport for London website. It has now sold out and been reprinted three times and is being considered for a numbered edition of what’s become a new classic poster.

After studying graphics at Kingston University, Liverpool born Johnson built up a career in commercial art doing work for the likes of Vodaphone, Orange, the Guardian, Economist and many other household brands and publications.

Some eight years ago he took up cycling in London, “to get out of the house as much as anything,” he says. Fortuitously perhaps TfL asked him to design 14 posters for the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The wit, style and creativity in the posters which featured bears on bikes (marathon runners cheating) and handlebar streamers (childhood memories) clearly impressed TfL, along with Johnson’s ability to turn round work in 48 hours.

The commission to do the Tour de France poster series followed, bringing with it a sales success that no one was prepared for — so strong in fact that TfL had to hire extra staff to handle the surprise demand.

Johnson cites Paul Rand (ABC news logo) and Saul Bass (Hitchcock film posters) as designers whose work he admires. In his own work he aims to hark back to that golden era but to add a modern feel. The popularity of his Le Tour series demonstrates that the public is receptive to his recipe.

Posters £9.95 (ltmuseumshop.co.uk); adrianjohnson.org.uk

Andrew Pavitt

Readers may not know of Andrew Pavitt, but many will have seen his work on the front cover of Jack Thurston’s popular Lost Lanes guidebook to rides in southern England.

Pavitt studied fine art and took the traditional path to illustration and commercial artwork. He’s been cycling in London for a dozen years and loves touring the countryside, but his choice of transport mode didn’t influence his art until he began making prints.

Friends suggested he produce a series of prints rather than one-offs and cycling came up as a suitable theme. Like fellow artist Eliza Southwood, he took a print to Look mum no hands! who were delighted to offer him a small show. Among his prints was also one dedicated to the legendary Dunwich Dynamo overnight ride to the coast. Someone whose eye it caught was cycling podcaster Jack Thurston who not only bought a print but asked Pavitt to produce a cover for his forthcoming book. Pavitt’s passion for the countryside and cycle touring was ideal for the new publication.


Further recognition of Pavitt’s work came with an invitation to exhibit at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. In his first year, Pavitt showed a print of a boat scene — it did relatively well for a younger artist but it was not a sell-out. This year Pavitt chose to show one of his favourite cycle prints, illustrating a cyclist battling stormy weather in Cornwall. It was a smart financial decision: it sold out within two weeks of the show opening. “I wish I’d printed a few more,” says Pavitt.

He suggests the popularity of cycle art is a combination of art lovers taking an interest in cycling and cyclists taking an interest in art. People who buy bicycles for several thousand pounds are prepared to buy artworks too.

Like some other printmakers Pavitt refers to the influence of the Grosvenor School of Art and also artists like Eric Bawden and Eric Ravillious. His black and white prints in particular reveal those influences.

Prints £200, cards £2.50 (art-angels.co.uk); andrewpavitt.blogspot.co.uk

David Sparshott

David Sparshott’s drawing style is unmistakeable — precise yet sketchy at the same time. And publisher Magma decided this ‘hand-drawn aesthetic’ was ideal for their Bike Watching Journal and commissioned him to do the illustrations for a sketchbook which allows the owner to write or draw alongside these beautiful images.

The sketchbook was Sparshott’s first cycling commission and Magma was quick to capitalise on its success. He was asked to produce posters illustrating iconic bikes and cycling jerseys. Initially the research for the drawings was done by Magma, but as Sparshott embraced the theme he started doing it himself and you can now buy his own versions of the Magma posters.

The original iconic bikes poster, for example, included a penny farthing (or ‘high wheeler’ as collectors prefer to call them) and other older machines, whereas Sparshott’s version includes more cycles that made racing history like Graham Obree’s home-made recordbreaker. Another spin-off was the pack of Trump Cards that enable enthusiasts to bike-spot while shuffling.

Given the extraordinary detail in Sparshott’s work — every spoke nipple is included in his ‘Anatomy of a Bike’ poster — it is not surprising that he has a small stable of bikes at home, including

Colnago, Olmo and Look.

He started cycling when he moved to London after completing his art degree at Bristol University. Among influences he mentions David Hockney, 1960s pop art and reportage photography. And what he likes about cycling is the aesthetic and style involved in bike design that spills over into an interest in art and photography. His posters of football shirts, despite the millions of footy fans around the country, have not attracted anything like the same interest as his cycle jersey posters.

While Sparshott has produced work for large organisations like BA and Nike he enjoys working with smaller independent companies like Rapha and Howies on cycling projects. Like most of his work, the Rapha Tour de France print includes Sparshott’s hand-written notes. Why? “They started off as notes on the side of the page and then I left them in and so it continued,” he says.

Posters £55, Bike Watching Journal £12.95; davidsparshott.com