Toulouse-Lautrec and the Welsh Cyclist
This poster designed by Toulouse-Lautrec in 1896 forever links fin-de-siecle Paris with a forgotten Welsh sporting hero.
Jimmy Michael from Aberaman was a world champion cyclist who enjoyed a dazzling career - first on the continent then in the United States. A diminutive figure, his trademark was to chew on a toothpick as he whizzed around the track.
Michael was riding for the Simpson Chain Company when they commissioned a poster to advertise their new bicycle chain. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was the chosen artist. A keen fan of the sport he often frequented the Paris velodromes which were hugely popular at the time.
In 1896 Lautrec journeyed to London to make preparatory sketches of the Welshman before returning to Paris to complete his design. As it turned out Simpson rejected Lautrec's finished drawing unhappy with its technical detailing. Nevertheless 200 copies of the Jimmy Michael poster were printed up to cash-in on the popularity of the Welsh cyclist.
Michael's demise is rather a tragic one. After a 60mph crash in Berlin in 1903 he suffered a fractured skull which effectively ended his career. Reduced to exhibition rides he developed an increasing dependence on alcohol (a weakness he shared with Lautrec). In 1904 he died of the DTs on board a ship en route to America.
The National Museum of Wales purchased one of Lautrec's Jimmy Michael posters back in the 1960s. Sadly it hasn't been on public display for years. However now that Wales has once again fallen for the cult of the bicycle perhaps it is time to put it back on view.
©Anthony Brockway 2006