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Artist Michael Turner

Michael Turner's Story, by Philip Porter

Michael Turner has been established at the very top of his profession as a motor racing artist for many decades. His work is universally known throughout the motoring world, as is his distinctive style.

We first met on a Guild of Motoring Writers touring event in France about 20 years ago when Michael and his wife Helen were in their newly-acquired Fixed Head E-type. During a subsequent Guild event in Spain, I took the opportunity to interview him. I began by asking how it all started. 

Le Mans 1963

'I think it goes back to school days. I was always drawing WWII Spitfires shooting down Messerschmitts on exercise books, much to the annoyance of my teachers. I hadn’t really thought about a career at that stage, but I went to the Isle of Man in 1947 with my parents for a first holiday after the war because my mother had relatives there. We noticed posters for the British Empire Trophy race, so we thought we’d go and have a look. My cousin knew a short-cut across some fields and took me to a place where we could watch practice. We stood by a farm gate and suddenly an ERA came round; the noise was tremendous and it was so exciting. We went to see the race, of course. Bob Gerard won and I got his signature on the programme, which I still have! From then, it was just motor sport that I wanted to draw and paint.' 

Though motor sport was now a passion and though he still had no thoughts of making a career in art, he decided, with some encouragement from his art teacher, to go to art college.

'While I was at art college, I went to all sorts of race meetings - the first Silverstone, the first Goodwood - anything I could get my parents to.' Young Turner went to college at the age of 17 for a year.  While there, his father suggested he should send some of his sketches to the motoring magazines. The Autocar, which already had artist Gordon Warner whom Michael greatly admired, told him to see them in three years' time. However, The Motor went further. They told him to keep sending in his sketches and they would give him some help and advice, which they did. As a result, Turner would remain loyal to Motor (as it became) until its publication ceased decades later.

'My first ever published work was in the BARC Gazette in 1951 while I was still at art school. I used to take my work round in the lunch hours when I was in London and the BARC was one of the places I went and John Morgan said, ‘Go down to our Whitsun meeting and draw us a picture and we’ll put it in the magazine’ which they did. I got two guineas, but it was a start!' Following national service between the ages of 18 and 20, Michael worked in advertising studios for three years painting car adverts and suchlike.

1964 French Grand Prix

'I worked for three different studios in London, but the third was the one I really wanted to get into, because they did Rootes Group, Nuffield, Jaguar… All the big car manufacturers had their advertising and brochures done through Astral Arts. I finally managed to get in and worked there for about 18 months. I progressed from doing colour roughs to doing finished artwork whilst I was there, which was fine. The thing that rather irritated me was that they had specialists - they had a figure man, a background man, a car man. I was a car man, but I rather objected to the fact that other people were putting the figures in the cars and the backgrounds, and I wanted to do the whole lot. I was doing a lot of overtime too and so I went to the boss and said I would like another 10 bob [50p] please a week. I was on £6 10s [£6.50] a week and he said, “Ooh no, can’t afford that” and I said I would hand in my notice and go freelance and he said, “Well all right, there’s a job you’re half way through, you may as well take that with you and finish it”. From then on, they fed me with work for a long time as a freelance, which obviously cost them a lot more than an extra 10 bob a week!' Meanwhile, Michael was doing, 'a lot of work for Motor, a lot of motor racing stuff, largely connected with advertising, which at the time was the way to earn a crust'. His eventual career was thus starting to take shape. 

'All the time I was doing the motor racing stuff, and aviation work as well to a degree, and then gradually the motor racing and the paintings took over and the advertising work started to drop away. This was just as well because agencies discovered photography for advertisements. Almost overnight, all the car manufacturers were using photography and a lot of car specialists were immediately without work. But I had got the motor racing thing going by then and it was not a problem, fortunately. I did a fair bit of book illustrating - magazines, Readers’ Digest, things like that, which a lot of people don’t know about, and book jackets - it’s all bread and butter. But gradually over the years, as they have dropped away, I have concentrated more on the motor sport, purely painting really.'

As a reflection of the esteem in which he was increasingly held, these motor racing paintings would be mainly commissions. 

'I’ve always been fortunate enough to have people ask me to do things, and that’s fine, because you know that when you start something it’s going to be paid for, rather than working for exhibitions and things speculatively when you never know quite.

1971 Can-Am Series

'My interests have mainly stayed fairly much the same. I was always attracted by Formula 1 and sports car racing because that is where the stars were. It just attracted me more because it was the top of the sport. Formula 1 [at present] is OK, but as we know it's not always a massive thrill from start to finish, is it? I find nostalgia a wonderful stimulus now. There are lots of things I haven’t painted, which I’d love to and things that I have which I feel I could do a bit better now. 

'I love going to historic meetings because the cars, or a lot of cars there, are the ones I used to see racing when they were current Formula 1 or sport cars. At the time, I used to take photographs, but not necessarily many because films were expensive when I was younger. So now I can go around, see the cars much as they were - most of them better than they ever were when they were racing - and take pictures of them from all sorts of angles, just the cars, without worrying about the backgrounds, which I can fill in from recollections and references. That’s good, it stimulates the memory really. I love going to historic meetings now.' 

Many will know of Turner’s famous Christmas cards, either having purchased them or received them over the years. They actually started as a result of someone else’s suggestion. A chap said to Michael, 'Could you do a series of pictures and we will put them on Christmas cards?'

'I thought, “What a daft idea”,' says Michael! 'Who on earth would want a Christmas card with a racing car on it? We started doing them, I think it was 1960, as black and whites and then went to colour.' They were an immediate success and quickly became an established part of the motor racing world. After a disagreement with the publisher, who rushed them out one year without allowing Turner to even see the proofs, Michael and his wife Helen formed Studio 88 and have produced a set of cards every year since 1963.

Talking of his work in general, I asked Michael what medium he generally worked in.

“Mainly in stuff called gouache, which is an opaque water colour really, just because it suits me and it suits the subject matter, I think. That’s got a size limitation on it, so anything over about 16” x 20” [406 x 508mm] goes onto canvas and I use acrylic as opposed to oil, which is much quicker to use. I don’t like hanging about on a picture once I start because it’s an exciting subject matter. I find if I spend too long on something it gets a bit tedious and I lose interest in it and the painting therefore is inclined to suffer, I think. So the advertising work really taught me to work quickly and to deadlines and if I don’t have pressure, then I find something else to do in the meantime.'

Our conversation then turned to Jaguars. He has had an SS Jaguar 100 for at least 60 years, bought the E-type about 15 years ago and later added a Mark 2 saloon.

'Before I went freelance in 1955, I started with an Austin 7 special, inevitably. That was my first car and was an awful deathtrap. Then I followed that with an MG which was just a rolling chassis and I had a body on it which I thought was rather nice; that also was a bit of a deathtrap. Then I was looking through the back pages of Motor Sport, as one does, coming home from work every evening and the SS100 was one of my desirable cars. I saw one advertised and I went to see it in Paddington. It was in a little lock-up garage and had been a racing one. The car had been stripped for racing and I thought it was the bees knees, appealing to my sporting instincts. I did eventually buy it, but it was a very complicated transaction, as it happened, and Notting Hill police came into it. I did get the car, eventually, and I paid £350 for it. That was in 1955.

'It ran with cycle wings and little headlights and things for years and years, on and off. Then I had it restored and it now looks like an SS100. The car is now in better running order than it ever was when I used to drive it around on a daily basis.'

The SS100 had followed the Turners whenever they moved house. Sometimes it would live in a garage and sometimes it would just live on the drive but, sadly, was not getting much use. Then one day, about 50 years ago, Michael had a phone call from Andrew Whyte, the distinguished Jaguar historian and author who worked for the company for many years. Andrew said that Jaguar did not have an SS Jaguar 100, as he always quite rightly called them, in their collection, would Turner consider parting with his? 

'I said, “Well, not really”.

'He said, “We will give you a new E-type in exchange”.

'I thought, “God! This has to be a fantastic deal.” Then I thought, “Well, hang on a minute. If they are that keen to swap it for the E-type, maybe it’s worth something.” I made some enquiries and it was beginning to become worth quite a lot and I decided to keep it. They subsequently got another one. I thought for a few years that I had done a daft thing but now, of course, I am more than happy that I kept it and I’ve got the E-type anyway!' 

2016 Monaco Grand Prix

So how did the love of E-types start? 

'I had an E-type loaned to me when the E-type came out. I was doing a cover. I used to do covers for The Times Motor Show Supplement and this particular year they said they wanted an E-type. I said I would need to see one and they arranged for me to borrow one for the weekend.

'I thought it was the most fantastic car I had ever driven and I wanted one, but I couldn’t afford one. So I did the painting for the cover of the magazine, but never forgot the weekend I had the use of one. It was terrific.’

It is amusing to reflect that here we are, about 15 years on, publishing a book of over 330 of Michael’s wonderful paintings. I first came across Michael’s work in Motor magazine when I was a child, extracted the prints included in several issues and framed them. Of course, I still have them. So, for me, it is a great pleasure and an enormous honour to publish this book.  

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