London-born Robert Carter on working as a graphic artist in the ’60s (he saw Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin), his love of hand-drawn lettering, and how, as a teenager, he would go whizzing by the legendary Ace Café on his old Ariel motorcycle.
– robert carter
When did you first become interested in being an artist?
I was interested in art at around age 13 or 14…it was one of those schools were other kids went off to work in construction or whatever… I thought I wouldn’t mind trying to be a commercial artist, but I didn’t know much about it. I was lucky I had a school teacher who let me out of class as soon as I got in on Thursdays. He’d let me go to the Tate Gallery, or the National, and I’d wander around there all day, it was free getting in. I realized there was something out there that I was really interested in but didn’t know much about.
What influenced you when you were walking the halls of those galleries?
I wouldn’t say it influenced really, just so impressed with it. Cause you look at stuff, and you go “Wow!” They’re not going to influence your work, they’re just stunning. I still get that when I go to galleries…”How the hell did they do that?”
Then you went to art school?
So my teachers told me I’d have to go to an art college, and go through the whole process to do that – it didn’t seem a good way for me, I just wanted to go out and get into it, so I started an apprenticeship at a studio. I was pretty much making tea, and delivering parcels. But I learned a lot along the way. All the guys in the studio, if you were interested, would show you stuff, tricks of the trade, that was great to come up in 1967.
London in the Sixties, that must have been a kick…
I enjoyed the hell out of it. I was into music and watching bands. You’d go to a pub and watch Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. It was great musically. I went to see a blues band every week, Clapton, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Me and my mates really liked the blues stuff and the American bands…seems like the American weren’t really into it. I’d watch Freddie King…Albert King and Buddy Guy. These guys would just come over and play gigs all over Europe. And the British bands were just ripping them off something horrible. Freddie King was my hero.
So, you’re learning a craft at this studio…what was that like?
The studio I went to work in was package designers initially, which covered everything from concept to coming up with the packages and the label, the shape of the box or the bottle…covered the whole field. But you’d get to learn a little about everything, lettering, airbrush work, illustrations, roughs, colors, design, whatever direction you’d want to go in. So I’d just try to pick up small amounts of each, and I’m still using it really, That’s why a lot of my stuff looks like packaging.
I turned freelance when I was 19, and I used it to travel. I’d work for a couple of months, and then take off for three months and go get lost in the Greek Islands, and then come back completely broke and start work the next day. I used it to travel for 10 years and got away with that.
When I first saw your work on Bonhams, I thought you were a long-gone artist that had lived and worked in the ’30s and ’40s. That you must have ran around with Geo Ham when not traveling the world and creating racing posters.
It was complete coincidence, I had never heard of Geo Ham until I took some stuff I’d done to Bonhams…and their head of memorabilia took a look and said, “This looks like Geo Ham’s stuff.” And I said, “Who’s that?” I had no idea who Geo Ham was. He pointed out that he’s the guy who did all those classic motor posters. And I took a look and said, “Oh I guess they are.” I don’t know if he was a sign painter or not, but we came about it in a different way I imagine.
And now that you know who Geo Ham is…
Oh I still love that stuff…I just really love Art Deco stuff. I’m a lettering fanatic. I actually create the typefaces, or most of them to actually go with the age, and age the piece. I’ve always been into lettering – that’s half of it for me.
Do you use a computer to design any of your work?
You know what, I can answer an email and that’s about my limit on a computer. I was taught all that stuff about lettering and balance and type styles when I was a kid, and for a long while I was doing bits and pieces in the studio.
The first studio I worked in the guys were just brilliant lettering artists…I mean they’d hand-letter just about everything. And sure enough dry-transfer lettering…Letraset and that stuff came out, which put an end to all that. Technology moves on. I loved photographic re-touching and they don’t need that anymore because of computer programs. It’s bound to happen.
How is riding a motorcycle today different that was It was back then?
I wouldn’t ride around London today. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and you don’t realize how dangerous the streets are – wet cobblestones in the ’60s…I mean it was just deadly. How I never came off I’ll never know. I used to go whizzing by the Ace Café when it was still running, and there was rockers out and stuff. I was running an old bike and didn’t hang out there. It was from the other side of London, so it wasn’t a local ride for me. I had an old Ariel when I was sixteen and I use to ride that around a lot.
So you were there for the cafe racing scene?
Absolutely, watching all that stuff when I was a little kid, I was drooling over those bikes even then.
How did you get into shooting drag races?
I was lucky, a mate of mine was a writer for Time Out magazine in London, and he lent me his press pass, and I showed up and said that Time Out are interested in doing something on the drag strip. It was early days for them so they thought they were going to get published and get some articles out of it. So they just let me on, and I was right there on the start line and photographing all these old bikes and cars as they took off. But that was kind of a hobby for me, I’d go home and convert me mum and dad’s bathroom into a dark room and just flat-out print. Out of date materials, but it’s funny because Bonhams have sold them in the past. I’m just lucky that my sister saved the negatives for me.
So about your photography…
Yeah, I have to do all my own stuff. All these things that look like prints, are actually 6.5′ x 4′. It costs an arm and a leg to actually set up a photographic studio or have someone do it properly. Cameras are so good these days really, so I take those photos to the printer and make what you call posters, I never went out of my way to make a poster – I mean these things are 6.5′ x 4′ or bigger…never really in the back my mind to paint something smaller. I paint big things because they look so much better. I research them for a couple of weeks – reading up on some of this stuff. Especially the thirties Grand Prix cars where they didn’t have any rules. You could come up with anything you like – V-16s and supercharged and all this stuff. Of course they were limited by what kind of tires they had. But power-wise those things were just frightening.
This reminds me of Brooklands…
There’s all these things to keep that place going. The history of that place is kind of remarkable. They purposely built the track for people to get on the train and get there…I guess there was a nightclub, and a restaurant…you’d go to watch these cars whiz around. I just got the Bonhams Goodwood catalogue… there must’ve been like a crack or a joint somewhere out there on a bank, nearly every car you see in the pictures has all four wheels off the ground. Great big old Bentley hurtling around… that would’ve been scary as hell riding a motorcycle around there.
I see that you have a few signs of Steve McQueen…how did that come about?
The first time Bonhams invited me to an auction, upstairs in the Peterson Museum, and I had no idea what I was in for. I showed up there, and they had Steve McQueen’s stuff…his bike, and they had his blue sunglasses – which were listed at I think $2,500. A competition went on between a guy from Florida and another guy from California…the winning bid ended up going for $72,000. I went wow, that Steve McQueen stuff is kind of cool. I read up on him and sure enough he was running Triumphs in the 1964 International Six Day Trial…so I made some pieces of him, and they’ve always attracted attention.
I was a sign painter over here, although I learned package art in Britain, when I ended up in Chico, they didn’t need anything like that. The whole industry changed from people who could use a paint brush to guys that could Photoshop and use a computer. So all my mates that were in the studio back in London, pretty much became unemployed. It’s just the way the business went. So I kinda got into painting signs and that stuff. It was a new business but it was very similar to what I was doing…but bigger. You know pin striping, lettering race cars, lettering trucks and I was able to just crack at these Steve McQueen pieces. I’d go to the junkyard and find a nice shaped piece of tin or metal. I like painting on metal…you end up with a big piece that you can actually grab hold of. I look at it as a blank canvas…wouldn’t it look neat with a Triumph logo on it and Steve McQueen leaping at the top?
How did you end up in Northern California?
I had bought a 1967 441 BSA and toured up to Canada, where it was snowing, and down the West Coast. I killed the engine in Chico. And that’s how I ended up here.
How much work do you create a year?
I’m pretty productive. Up here Chico, it’s a big farming area, I live on a farm in the back of an orchard. I looked at the trucks and their signs and the rest of it and they felt so boring. And I’ve always loved California fruit-crate art. So I incorporated that for the local guys and they went nuts for that stuff. And pretty much once the guy’s wife sees it you got the job. So the next thing you’re doing T-shirts, you’re lettering it on side of their fleet of trucks, you’re painting a big sign for the front of the barn. It’s just bringing that stuff back. It was kind of a lost art up this way. So many people had lost interest. But once they saw it they really liked them.
And at one point I was done…I like the fruit-crate print art thing, but I’m not mad about fruit, if there was a Norton in there I’d be a lot happier. I decided I could paint this stuff and maybe find an outlet for it. I knew if I liked it and wanted it…someone else would as well. Luckily, that’s when Bonhams showed up.
So you must know Paul d’Orléans over there at Bonhams?
Oh I know Paul. He bought my Velocette piece off me. That guy’s so involved in motorcycles…he’s great. He travels all over the world. He’s involved in everything. You see a record speed attempt on a Brough Superior up in Bonneville, and Paul’s standing in the back. He really does know his stuff.
Are you doing any commissioned work?
I wasn’t for the longest time…I just want to paint the things I like. And if you do motorcycle stuff, you always got the guy with the Harley that thinks it’s the best bike on the planet…no, I don’t want to do that. So I turned down commissions for years. It’s only the last year that people have asked me, and I’m actually interested in. So I’ve taken on a few because they’re interested in an old Grand Prix style, at the moment that’s what I’m into.
How would your friends and family describe you?
Always thinking about the next painting.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
At the moment, a good friend of mine, are trying to organize a trip to ride up the Himalayas together. They do these trips where you can get on a Royal Enfield and go with a group and a back-up truck, so if you have a breakdown. I’ve been wanting to do it since I was a kid.
Also, I’m the vice president of the Ishi Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.
+ Source: Robert Carter