Ever the Spectator: The cycling passions of Toulouse-Lautrec

In a not-so-recently published book on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec, JULIA FREY relates how, although his physical disabilities barred him from riding a bike they were unable diminish his passion for cyclesport.

The cycling boom of the 1890s coincided with the high-point of French poster art. The name which has shone on through history is that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an energetic, even mercurial artist whose fragile bones and short, knock-kneed legs prevented him from riding the newly fashionable safety bicycle: his childhood tricycle had been his last taste of physical freedom However, he became an impassioned spectator of bicycle races, through his friendship with Tristan Bernard, who managed two Velodromes and edited 'Le Journal des Velocipedistes'. Though, according to Frey, "He watched them all with the same intensity that he watched a line of dancers or a circus bareback rider, attracted by the beauty of movement, but also by the smells, sounds and excitement of the spectacle".

Bernard describes Toulouse-Lautrec's behaviour: "I would let him into the enclosure along with the officials... I think the race results interested him little, but he was fascinated by the setting and the people". Bernard enjoyed taking Henri to cycle track races in Belgium, mentioning that Henri was always very interested and excited, but as the afternoon and the drinks progressed, he grew exhausted, "circled briefly on the grass enclosure, like a dog looking for a place to lie down, and finally curled up on the ground to fall asleep". Bernard also describes how Toulouse-Lautrec liked to go into the locker room, "leaning over closely to watch the massages which revived the athletes".

Toulouse-Lautrec accompanied a team of French racing cyclists to on a three day visit to London, in 1896. Although a heavy drinker himself, he was apparently deeply depressed by British drinking habits.

Sadly, Toulouse-Lautrec's love of cycling is not strongly evident in his art. His one major work is a poster for the preposterous Simpson bicycle chain, the hooked teeth of which were supposed to increase efficiency. The poster was commissioned by Louis Bougle, known as 'Spoke', the French representative of the firm. According to Julia Frey, the poster shows the Velodrome Buffalo during a bicycle race, the far ends of its track cut off by the frame of the poster on both left and right. In the grassy oval a band plays as the race goes on. Standing in the enclosure are the manufacturer of the Simpson bicycle chain and Spoke himself.

Far in the background are a couple of pacing multicycles. One seems to be peeling off, so that a fresh multicycle team can take over. This standard manoeuvre in the cycle sport of the time is not understood by Frey, who also seems to think that the solo rider in the foreground is trying to overtake his pacing team! The lone racer's bicycle sports a carefully drawn Simpson lever chain, the simple message being that all the pacing teams in the world won't help you catch a rider using a Simpson chain.

In their book 'Mit dem Rad durch zwei Jahrhunderte' Rauck, Volke and Paturi identify the cyclist as the top racer Constant Huret, lead by his trainer on the rear of the multicycle. The poster developed from an earlier sketched design featuring the English world champion Jimmy Michael which was rejected by Spoke.

Despite her erroneous interpretations of the cycling poster, Frey's book is a delightful, intelligent exploration of the life of a fascinating artist and tormented bohemian.

Toulouse-Lautrec, a Life, by Julia Frey, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994, ISBN 0 297 81271 8.