15 January 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 43 - A most unusual life

Racing drivers come from many different and varied backgrounds but few of them are involved in “the arts”. There are not many writers, dancers or painters who have raced and while some drivers have been very good musicians, the average F1 driver seems to be more attuned to machines than to ethereal matters. Strangely, Leslie Marr’s family background came from the world of engineering. His grandfather was Sir James Marr, a celebrated shipbuilder who ran the Joseph Thompson and Sir James Laing shipyards, the Sunderland Forge & Engineering Company, which fitted out new ships, the Silver Line shipping firm and the Wolsingham Steel Foundry. He began running the Thompson shipyard in 1908 after the early death of Robert Thompson and was raised to a baronetcy in 1919 for services to the government during WW1.

His son John was also an engineer, working in the family businesses, while also being in the Territorial Army. He was called up in 1914 and served as the commander of the Durham Heavy Battery on the Western Front until 1917 when he was recalled to work at the Admiralty. After the war he married May Thompson, the daughter of Robert Thompson and Leslie was born two years later. Sadly, John would die of pneumonia at the age of 53, when Leslie was only nine. A year later Sir James died as well, leaving Leslie as the 2nd Baronet with a considerable fortune awaiting him when he was 21. His mother May was a character, sent to a finishing school in Belgium. She graced the ballrooms of St. Moritz and bobsleighed with a Russian Prince, while also visiting Egypt with her parents. She was one of the first women in the north of England to own her own automobiles and looked after them herself. These included a Darracq and later a Fiat. During the war she served in the Red Cross but was also a very good shot and opened a rifle range to train soldiers. After his father’s death, his mother struggled to cope and ended up spending some time in a psychiatric hospital in Kent. Her brother Stanley made a big impact with his wild nature and driving escapades.

Leslie was sent away to school in Shrewsbury in his teens and then went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied engineering. He graduated in 1942 and was then called up into the Royal Air Force Technical Branch (Radar), initially at the Yatesbury radar school and then at Dollarbeg Castle in Dollar, Scotland before being sent to Islay in the Hebrides. He was then posted back to a more lively station at Beachy Head where V1 and V2 rockets were being fired all the time and he had several near-misses. He was then despatched to Egypt where he was put in charge of a top secret Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES) around the Middle East. It was during this time that he began to paint seriously before he was posted back to Egypt and then to the Isle of Wight by the end of the war.

He then decided that he wanted to pursue art, rather than going into shipbuilding. He returned to London and attended the Heatherley School of Fine Art in Pimlico and then moved on to the Borough Polytechnic, where he studied under David Bomberg and was one of the founders of the  Borough Group of artists, which held exhibitions in a large room above a bookshop. This included Cliff Holden, Edna Mann, Dorothy Mead, Peter Richmond, Dennis Creffield and Dinora Mendelson, Bomberg’s step-daughter, who Marr married in June 1948. They separated after only a couple of years and he moved to Shropshire to paint landscapes.

He then decided to buy himself a racing car and acquired a Connaught A-type with which he competed in British races that summer, finishing third in the United States Air Force Trophy at Snetterton the following summer, behind Tony Rolt and Bob Gerard. In 1954 he raced in the British GP and finished 13th, but he was a long way off the pace.

The following year he bought a new streamlined Connaught B-Type and won a race at Davidstow in Cornwall, although he was happy to admit that the competition was weak. A second appearance in the British GP later that summer saw him spin off after a brake failure. That autumn he shipped the car to New Zealand and went out to take part in the annual races there. He finished third in the Lady Wigram Trophy.

In the final round at Invercargill he was hit in the face by a stone and spun into a ditch, wrecking the car. He decided that enough was enough. He returned to Europe and focussed on his painting, but still returned to New Zealand later to paint.

He remarried in 1962 having met his second wife who was working as a mechanic in a garage. They had two daughters. They lived in a thatched cottage on Exmoor in North Devon from 1963 until 1969 and Marr then turned his attention to pottery, moving to Norfolk where he built a large kiln and opened a gallery. He began visiting Scotland on a regular basis and bought a house in Glencoe in 1973. He tried his hand at photography as well and in the late 1970s published a book about church architecture. The couple moved to the island of Arran in 1983, where they remained until 1991, before returning to Norfolk. His marriage broke down although he married for a third time in 2002.

He is styled Sir Leslie Marr, 2nd Baronet but he never uses the title – even at the advanaced age of 97…

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