Frank Patterson could be described as the first illustrator of cycling. His career spanned over 50 years and much of that time cycling, was subject the matter. Looking back at his work is a wonderful visual experience. His work dates back to the ‘golden age’ age of cycling. These illustrations are now wonderfully nostalgic. Some argued that Patterson’s illustrations were too ‘syrupy’ at the time, given the commercial nature of his work there is no doubt that it was, to fulfil the needs of his client. Regardless of this, his illustrations of cyclists roaming England, capture the freedom that is still felt today by cyclists all over the world. So who was Frank Patterson and why did he draw cycling images?
Frank Patterson was born on 12 October 1871 in Portsmouth England in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. Cycling at the time was developing in to a popular form of transport and subsequently the pursuit of leisure for those with spare time to explore or go touring by bicycle. It was a golden age for cycling. It is believed that this is how Frank Patterson came to cycling and developed his interest for cycling but, maybe not why he started to illustrate cycling.
There was nothing in Patterson’s past to suggest a great talent for drawing or cycling. He came from a seafaring family and it was thought that he would continue the tradition. It soon became obvious that his passion and interests were in art and not the sea, and instead of a life at sea, he enrolled at Portsmouth School of Art. After completing his studies and graduating he found ti hard to gain employment as an artist in Portsmouth. Patterson decided to pack his bags and walk to London in search of his fortune.
Little did he know being an artist was not based on talent alone. However he found work in producing illustrations for books and magazines. In a sense this was his good fortune, as his illustration skills were outstanding. His preffered pen being the Gillott 303 and a goose quill which he referred to it’s use as ‘slapping in the pork’ which is a wonderful term and showed his mannerism nicely.
In 1893 Patterson started producing illustrations for Temple Press who owned the magazine Cycling amongst many other titles some of which he also produced illustrations for). Patterson was soon contracted to produce ten drawings a week and he said that he never missed a deadline which is incredible considering his career spanned over 50 years! It is widely believed that Patterson was a keen cyclist but, by his late 30′s was unable to cycle due to a knee or leg injury.
By 1898 Patterson had left London and rented Pear Tree Farm near Billingshurst, West Sussex. The rent was 9d (about £2.25) and in 1902 he and his wife brought the property for £5 (the farm in 2008 was sold for £1.45 million). From then on Patterson worked from Pear Tree Farm producing his well known and loved illustrations for the magazine Cycling.
In appearance Patterson looked no different from the farmers who lived in the area but, he didn’t keep cattle or farm the land, so it must of seemed strange that this man could keep himself financially solvent. The truth would of came as a surprise to those that found out in the area.
Patterson’s illustrations were always familiar in theme and style. The style was Patterson’s and it was suggestive and heavy on the use of lines to conjure tone and depth, not dissimilar to the line-cut prints of the era, which were typically etched in wood, then inked-up for printing. The technical challenge of producing illustrations that would work in printed matter would of effected his style. The theme was that of the English countryside with either a singular cyclist or a few enjoying the freedom of touring the quiet and beautiful scenery of England and all it’s counties. As Patterson didn’t draw from life itself but, used reference material for his illustrations – friends and fans would send him pictures and postcards to use, he would then add a cyclist or two into the scene and complete the drawing.
Patterson worked right until the end of life and produced work of the same quality, even though he was over eighty years old. I imagine his hand was trained after so many years that he could produce an illustration blindfolded! By 1950 his health deteriorated and on the 17th July 1952 passed awayHe requested that his ashes be scattered at his beloved house Pear Tree Farm and there he finally rests, leaving behind an amazing legacy of work.
Over the course of his career his produced over 26,000 drawings, what strikes me as interesting is that I’ve seen maybe only 100 of these drawings. Each one for me is wonderful. I first saw them as a boy and they were already nostalgic. The thing that really sparks me is the doing in the illustrations and what I mean is the act of cycling. The pace and use of a bicycle, exploring in an innocent age. No computers to ‘share or like’ someones activity. The cyclist or cyclist depicted in the drawings are enjoying pure freedom. I look at these drawings and somehow hope to find what they find – not to be tainted by outside factors. Those outside factors ranging from having the ‘right’ gear to iPhone connection, data recording, average speeds, heart rate zones and so on. Just you and a bike and the great outdoors. There in those Patterson illustrations is the thing I’m looking for. That rose-tinted view from a golden era in cycling. I know I will never get that but, the aim is for the freedom in those drawings.
Either way I’m grateful to Patterson for his drawings, which many years later, have provided me with a simple motivation to ride my bike somewhere and maybe just sit there for a while, enjoy the view and then head home. So often cycling is about the gear, training and event. Before this in Patterson’e era of cycling there was those who used the bicycle for leisure and touring. I believe there is an undercurrent in cycling trends rear will slowly bring the focus back to this style of cycling and the practical bikes needed. I just hope there is another Patterson to pick up the pen and chronicle those times.