The art of flight: ‘Aerial motor cars’ have fascinated artists since man first took to the skies
22:10 GMT, 17 August 2012
As the 20th century dawned, popular imagination was gripped by enthusiasm for flying machines, a fascination fostered by the Daily Mail’s far-sighted proprietor Lord Northcliffe.
In 1906, he delivered a dressing-down to an editor who failed to grasp the significance when aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont achieved the first European flight, in Paris, of 220m in 21.5 seconds. ‘A man with a heavier-than-air machine has flown,’ railed Northcliffe.
‘It does not matter how far he has flown. He has shown what can be done. In a year’s time, mark my words, that fellow will be flying over here from France. Nothing so important has happened for a very long time.’
Alberto Santos-Dumont makes Europe's first powered flight in 1906
The Daily Mail embraced ‘aerial motor cars’ with fervour. Within days of Santos-Dumont’s flight, the Mail announced a 10,000 prize – worth over 2 million today – for the first flight from London to Manchester, and in 1908 set a 1,000 challenge for the first cross-Channel flight.
Although the satirical magazine Punch retaliated with a sardonic offer of 10,000 for a return flight to Mars, a journey to the centre of the Earth or a swim across the Atlantic, the Daily Mail’s prizes – that once seemed so far-fetched – were awarded to Louis Blriot, for the cross-Channel flight in 1909, and to Louis Paulhan, for London to Manchester the following year.
These merry, careless, cigarette-smoking airmen became A-list celebrities as the Mail offered yet another 10,000 for a spectacular 1,010 mile Circuit Of Britain race which gripped the entire nation in 1911.
More than an air display, this was also a major news story, as a Daily Mail team of 240 reporters described the race’s progress from vantage points around the country, and thousands of spectators gathered at dawn to see the final take-off on the last leg between Hendon and Brooklands airfields. (The pilot who came second and only won 200 burst into tears.)
The Mail’s next 10,000 challenge was interrupted by the First World War but was awarded to John Alcock and Arthur Brown for their first transatlantic flight in 1919.
Alcock and Brown's Vickers Vimy
With his genius for popular journalism, Lord Northcliffe was selling his readers the dream of flight that had preoccupied man since he first looked at the skies and aspired to fly.
‘We’ve all become so blas about it – but it was a miracle,’ says Professor Sam Smiles, curator of Flight And The Artistic Imagination at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire.
The first-ever exhibition about art and the history of flight in the UK, it features – along with works dating back to Leonardo da Vinci – a photograph of Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy biplane setting off from St John’s, Newfoundland, on 14 June 1919.
‘We forget so quickly,’ adds Professor Smiles, ‘but my dad, who was born in 1912, remembered watching a Zeppelin come down in flames – and he lived long enough to see the moon shots. It’s staggering that this happened in one lifetime.’
As the 20th century dawned, popular imagination was gripped by enthusiasm for flying machines, a fascination fostered by the Daily Mail's far-sighted proprietor Lord Northcliffe
Long before man achieved take-off, artists fantasised about seeing the world from a bird’s-eye view, but it wasn’t until 1786 that the first airborne images were published.
Thomas Baldwin made a solo balloon flight and produced drawings of the views. His illustrations were published as coloured engravings in the book Airopaidia, an account of his flight that captures all the excitement of viewing the landscape – partially obscured by clouds – as only a handful of men had ever seen it before. (French hot-air balloon pioneers the Montgolfier brothers had made the first ascent only three years previously.)
The reader was instructed to look through a small paper tube and follow the balloon’s flight path on a fold-out aerial map in an attempt to simulate the experience. ‘It was so novel, it would be like Neil Armstrong talking about going to the moon,’ says Professor Smiles.
Centuries later, the thrill of flying was captured in the 1920s and 30s by Alfred G Buckham (who had been a First World War reconnaissance photographer for the Royal Naval Air Service); his sublime photographs of storm clouds, taken from planes piloted by himself, revealed a new celestial landscape.
Other artists were impressed by how planes literally wrote on the skies.
The higher-flying aircraft of the Second World War produced vapour trails that inspired Paul Nash, while landscape artist CRW Nevinson saw an ephemeral beauty in the smoke from shells fired at enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain.
That sense of wonderment is what Professor Smiles wants us to recapture. ‘It’s about a vision, a poetry that goes along with flying – and we should try to keep hold of it,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t let the routine of flying these days dull our sensibilities.
‘When I’m sitting at 30,000ft, going 600mph, eating an airline meal, I’m not air-conscious. That’s not what those pioneers expected. I think some of the artists in this exhibition are trying to get back to the miracle we’ve forgotten about.’
Flight And The Artistic Imagination runs until 30 September. Visit www.comptonverney.org.uk. Sam Smiles’ accompanying book is 16.96.