Rosé, Red Rum and the voice of racing: The archive of commentator Peter O'Sullevan is going on display in London

By Ben Miller | 23 February 2016 | Updated: 22 February 2016

Known as the voice of racing until his death in July 2015, Peter O'Sullevan was also the Chair of a gallery where some of the best bits of his archive are about to be revealed

A photo of a painting of racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
The collection of the late Sir Peter O'Sullevan is going on display in London next month - coinciding with his beloved Cheltenham Festival© Osborne Studio Gallery
In 1939, Peter O’Sullevan – the much-loved voice of horse-racing, who died last summer aged 97 – hatched a plan to smuggle a bunch of leaflets into Germany, exhorting workers to resist the Nazis. He made a secret compartment in his car, but abandoned the idea when travel restrictions were enforced as the war accelerated.

A photo of a horse racing card created by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
O'Sullevan's notes on the 198th Derby Stakes© Osborne Studio Gallery
About 71 years later, Sean Magee, who would become his biographer, entered negotiations to take care of this foiled propaganda. “Peter opened the second bottle of rosé,” says Magee, recalling how the fate of his vast personal archive, at his Cranmer Court home in London, had been “exercising” O’Sullevan.

A photo of a horse racing card created by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
The card is from the Derby Stakes in 1977© Osborne Studio Gallery
“When the time came, what was to be done with all the documentary material which he had accumulated, and which was now occupying so many nooks and crannies? Would I care to take custody of it?

A photo of a letter from the press association to racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
O'Sullevan joined the Press Association on a salary of 9 guineas a week in December 1944© Osborne Studio Gallery
“Of course I would. He had already given me the 51 scrapbooks into which he had pasted cuttings of everything he had written during his long career as a journalist. And although the sheer mass of other material in the flat was daunting, to go through it was the racing historian’s equivalent of Howard Carter opening Tutankhamun’s tomb.”

A photo of a letter from the BBC to racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
An appearance on BBC Television's Morecambe and Wise Show in 1976© Osborne Studio Gallery
The commentary charts kept by this oracle, says Magee, are “extraordinary”, diligently annotated with stats, frittered around winning betting vouchers. “After Peter died I started working through the cornucopia he had left behind. What made perusal of this material so riveting was the unexpected.

A photo of a series of dog collars owned by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
The collars from Peter and Pat's dogs, including Topolino and Pucci© Osborne Studio Gallery
“There is the script, tweaked with the perfectionist O’Sullevan pen, for his appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Show. There is a musical greeting from Andrew Lloyd Webber to mark his retirement, and the letter from Albert Roux declaring Peter’s beloved miniature poodle Topolina ‘a welcome visitor of Le Gavroche and all other Roux enterprises, where she is renowned for her impeccable conduct.’”

A photo of a television award held by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
O'Sullevan was a winner of the BBC Broadcaster of The Year Award© Osborne Studio Gallery
And there is a comfortably defeated note from a turf accountant, William Wood, closing O’Sullevan’s account: “After three years during which you have won consistently, we shall have to give you best and ask you to bet elsewhere. You are too good for us.”

A photo of a composition by Andrew Lloyd-Weber for racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
Andrew Lloyd Webber's impromptu musical tribute on O'Sullevan's retirement in 1997 – sung to the tune of Don't Cry For Me, Argentina© Osborne Studio Gallery
O’Sullevan amassed a formidable collection of equestrian art. There’s a bronze of Red Rum, an LS Lowry print and several pastels by John Skeaping, including a sand-covering Arab Chieftain and a depiction of champion jockeys Lester Piggott and Willie Carson racing each other. Now the works are returning to a gallery whose Director, Geoffrey Hughes, idolised O’Sullevan when they first met 30 years ago.

A photo of a painting held by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
P Seichaud, Blinkers. Oil on canvas© Osborne Studio Gallery
“I had a visit, quite out of the blue, from my boyhood hero,” Hughes recalls of the days following his founding of the Osborne Studio Gallery. “Ahead of the game, as ever, he had heard that our gallery was to specialise in racing and equestrian art. From day one he offered enormous encouragement and support. I was, of course, over the moon.”

A photo of an LS Lowry painting held by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
LS Lowry, On the Sands. Signed print© Osborne Studio Gallery
The friendship flourished. In 1998, fuelled by what Hughes terms “plentiful Dutch courage”, the owner asked the observer to become the gallery's Chairman – O’Sullevan took a day, said yes and spent the next 18 years providing “tremendous support”, attending private views and drinking wine. “Racing art was his great love but, beyond that, he collected works from his travels, particularly from North Africa, seeking out artists in remote places,” says Hughes.

A photo of a bronze sculpture of a horse held by racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan as part of an exhibition being held at London's Osborne Studio Gallery
Philip Blacker, Red Rum (1997). Bronze© Osborne Studio Gallery
“Interestingly, subjects incorporating Pierrot are well represented in his collection. I did once ask him, after a memorably convivial evening, why clowns were so close to his heart. As was so often the case with Peter, after an evening of bonhomie, when it comes to reporting his answer, my memory fails.”

O’Sullevan’s wife, Pat, could have influenced his tastes, although artists such as Skeaping, who he was a lifelong friend of and owned a greyhound with, probably also swayed him. Some of the exhibited works will benefit the charitable trust named after him. “His natural modesty forbade it but every indication I had, from our conversations in the latter part of his life, suggested he would love others to share some of these memories,” believes Hughes.

There have been elements of luck: a chart for Sir Ivor’s Derby - “a precious relic”, according to Magee - materialised in a kitchen drawer at the flat, further portraying an always-prepared commentator. “Look at the chart for Nijinsky’s Derby, or Grundy and Bustino’s King George, or one of Red Rum’s Grand Nationals, and you hear Peter’s commentary in your mind’s ear,” says Magee, who has aimed for variety but acknowledges the particular power of the sporting papers.

“Over the next few months the whole archive will be organised to form a resource not only for racing historians but for those studying the wider canvas of 20th century social history.” A few items will be sold, but the papers will be given to The Cox Library of racing books, ensuring the papers are available in line with O’Sullevan’s wishes. Coinciding with the Cheltenham Festival, this tribute to an obsessive takes place at his favourite time of year.


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