A good mate of mine loves the classic post war era of magazine advertisements for American cars.
He handed over a few copies of Fortune magazine from that period for me to photograph the ads so he could make them into framed prints for his study.
It was a bit of fun and the images turned out ok and I remember being impressed by the quality of the artwork at the time; but I didn’t think any more of it.
Jump forward a year and I realise, now, that the kind of artwork we are discussing has an authentic American feel to it that hit the high notes just as the vast expanse of the US auto and aircraft industries were beating swords into ploughshares after the triumph over Germany and Japan.
The arsenal of democracy was looking for a new challenge. This all sounds reasonable, but there is an older, deeper story to share if we are to really appreciate the magic of the art.
Happily, for us, Sheryl Fiegel and Theodore Hamady have done just that by casting a light on the careers of Clayton Knight and William Heaslip.
I admit to having never heard of the two men before, but this is what great books do to help correct my slabs of ignorance. Rest assured, Champions of Flight is a great book.
The range of advertising, illustrations, comics and fine art is staggering to say the least.
That so much of the output achieved by Knight and Heaslip is devoted to the world of aviation comes as no surprise when we learn that both men served in Allied air services during the Great War.
Clayton Knight was a comrade of the American ace Elliott White Springs who became a prolific author and feature writer after the conflict.
The two men seem to have complimented each other almost perfectly. Meanwhile, Heaslip, originally from Canada; was serving in the Royal Flying Corps. The two artists were immersed in the classic era of pioneer aviation and their work reflects the front row seat they enjoyed.
This glorious book shares a lot of their work and goes to the trouble of showing the stages of some of it. The effect is to draw the reader in even deeper. There can be no complaints.
The period between the wars was something of a golden time for our two artists and my poor mate would probably never have enough wall space for the stunning array of art on view.
Knight and Heaslip had similar styles which suited the media of the day. They seem to have been able to draw almost anything. Their aviation work is as romantic as it is stylish. Waldo Pepper is never far away.
Along came the Second World War. The conflict gave our heroes a huge canvas to produce some wonderful work, the factual mixing in beautifully with the more fanciful.
We see tidy efforts at artwork for aircraft recognition purposes dovetailing with dramatic scenes of London in the Blitz.
The letter must have had quite an impact in the United States, however fictional the presentations actually were. This sort of work did much to keep many Americans on side as London burned.
Once the United States entered the conflict, the two artists were able to throw themselves into the war effort, producing some genuinely beautiful pieces.
Shiny planes with big radial engines take on a romantic beauty, the power and the glory is omnipresent. Even then there is a sort of throwaway feel to some of it, made at a time when the unfolding drama of the war outstripped the people recording it.
All our favourite aircraft are here along with much more besides. The vista of subject matter seems endless.
At the end of the day, this book will wrap you in a warm glow as you leaf through the stupendous range of art. It truly is inspirational stuff.
I think of myself as someone who loves art and who has broad tastes. I’ve always been attracted to aviation art, in particular, but there is much more to enjoy here.
I defy anyone to dare turn their nose up at this beautiful book. The artwork is gorgeous while the design has been handled with real care.
The use of ephemera and other mementoes from the life of Knight and Heaslip has been managed with aplomb. Suffice to say all this detail does much to support the art, giving it a deeper context and gravitas.
The authors have done an amazing job bringing the two artists to life while the biographical content is well written and entertaining.
I have to thank the authors because they have given me my ‘book of the year’ in January. I can swan off for a holiday with nothing to worry about… except I love books and I’m happy to give it time. Ask me again in December.
Clayton Knight and William Heaslip
Artists Who Chronicled Aviation from the Great War to Victory in WWII
By Sheryl Fiegel & Theodore Hamady
ISBN: 978 1 61200 779 3
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online