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The dramatic illustration of a blue Bugatti with its scarfed driver charging into the Mediterranean sunshine from the tunnel during the Monaco Grand Prix must be one of the most famous grand prix poster images, not just of the 1930’s, but of all time.

Geo Ham was 32 when he received this first of many commissions from the Automobile Club de Monaco for illustrations to adorn their posters in what was to become the jewel in the crown of grand prix racing.

Georges Hammel was Born in Lavel, France in 1900 and retitled himself Geo Ham when he started his career painting for L’Illustration, a Parisian newspaper that ran weekly from 1843 to 1944 for whom he worked until 1940.

This flamboyant artist, lifelong aficionado of the motor car and part time racing driver could reflect on his personal relationship with the subject matter by sitting in a racing car to experience, live, feel and breathe speed. He could capture the danger and speed as well as the technical accuracy of a racing car like no other. In 1934 Ham shared a Derby L8 with Louis Villeneuve at Le Mans 24 Hours.

He soon put his artistic skills to use designing exotic bodywork for French coach builders Figoni & Falaschi. The flamboyant designs with wings streaming up from the chassis evolved into a series of roadsters, the Delahaye 135 and 165 and Delage D6 amongst them.

The style of the ‘painter of speed’ became instantly recognisable. From the 1930’s through to the 1950’s, Geo Ham’s artwork was seen on posters created for the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and pretty much every other race track in France! Every race, every launch of a new car, every event, every winning moment was recorded by this one man, Geo Ham.

Ham posters were often visually spectacular and sometimes took liberties with reality to produce the greatest dramatic effect – perfectly demonstrated by the poster for the 1956 prix de Paris showing a stylised racing driver…..with signature driver’s scarf blowing in the wind. He liked to immortalise drivers as much as he immortalised the cars.  

His love for Le Mans remained throughout and in a series of watercolours for a lavish book by Roger Labric, Ham recounted the history of the Le Mans 24 hours. Many of the original paintings adorn the walls of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to this day.

Ham’s illustrations were important for documenting not only the transformation of the car industry but also that of the development of aviation. He was equally famous for painting planes and motorbikes.

He died nearly forgotten, as the humble paint brush was overthrown by photography and film. Today, with our visual overload of manipulated photography, a dramatic Geo Ham artwork still does something a camera never will; it creates feeling, passion, emotion that can only be achieved by the input of a human hand.

Hugely appreciated amongst Collectors his posters can now command many thousands of pounds. Let’s be honest, which petrolhead wouldn’t want a fantastic art deco styled vision of man and car speeding around a track on their wall? I have several!

From an article first written for issue #9 of Magneto magazine by Rupert Whyte.