Roy Cross, artist who brought excitement to Airfix boxes in the golden age of modelling – obituary

Roy Cross in his studio: in the Second World War, he had worked as a technical illustrator for Fairey Aviation
Roy Cross in his studio: in the Second World War, he had worked as a technical illustrator for Fairey Aviation

Roy Cross, who has died the day after his 100th birthday, captured the imagination of generations of young boys as the principal artist for Airfix during the model kits’ heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

His paintings, reproduced on the cardboard box lid or bag-tag, went beyond a simple guide to which paint colours to use, and injected an air of romance and jeopardy – a Lancaster limping home with engines aflame against mackerel skies; a Fokker triplane plunging from a queasy angle in a dogfight; a Short Sunderland flying boat above bomb-churned seas. Cross expressed speed with liberal use of “whoosh!”-style white lines.

By 1971 Airfix was Britain’s leading toy manufacturer, and Cross’s illustrations promised all the swashbuckling adventure of a Commando magazine to children who had feverishly saved up their pocket money, and might have been daunted when they tore open their kits to be confronted with cryptic sheets of plastic pieces.

One of Cross's best known Airfix box-lid images, of the Avro Lancaster
One of Cross's best known Airfix box-lid images, of the Avro Lancaster - Courtesy of family

The Top Gear presenter James May recalled, aged nine, the “pants-wetting excitement” induced by Cross’s boxes: “The picture means that when you start making the model you’re in that scene; it isn’t little bits of plastic, it’s a real aeroplane and you’re flying it and there really are bandits at three o’clock trying to shoot you down.” Based on the sheer amount of time schoolboys spent thinking about Airfix artwork, May reckoned Cross “the most influential British artist of the 20th century”.

Cross had suggested himself to Airfix in 1963, having seen their bagged kits in Woolworth’s, and he knew he could do better. During the Second World War he had worked as a technical illustrator for Fairey Aviation, and Airfix would draw on his expertise for more than the artwork: Cross also advised on the moulding of the Airfix Spitfire – a bestseller – after extensive correspondence with Beverley Shenstone, the aerodynamicist behind the Spitfire’s unique elliptical wing shape.

Vintage Years Of Airfix Box Art
Vintage Years Of Airfix Box Art

Cross went on to illustrate more than 200 kits for Airfix, including ships, cars, tanks and military vehicles, railway engines and even space rockets, until the work petered out in 1973 when the oil crisis drove up the cost of plastic. He then turned to marine art, and was noted for the accuracy of his paintings of historical vessels.

From the late 1970s Airfix began to reissue Cross’s art , but in increasingly anodyne form, airbrushing out the bombs and bullets that had appealed to young boys in the first place. “It’s completely sanitised,” he said, “and [takes] all the excitement away, as well as spoiling my original painting.” More recently, Airfix have returned to his vision.

Cross's painting of the 'ship to ship' duel between the American heavy frigate Constitution and the less powerful HMS Guerriere in 1812
Cross's painting of the 'ship to ship' duel between the American heavy frigate Constitution and the less powerful HMS Guerriere in 1812 - Courtesy of family

He was born in Camberwell, south London, on April 23 1924, to John and Ethel Cross, and spent his summers with his aunt Nell in Hertfordshire, where on rainy days he would study her books on Constable, Turner, Frederick Leighton and Alma-Tadema.

This was the golden age of aviation. Young Roy recalled being taken at the age of 12 to the de Havilland airfield at Hatfield and poring over the exploits of airmen and women, celebrated in children’s magazines such as Popular Flying, edited by Capt W E Johns, creator of Biggles. In 1938, Johns politely declined 14-year-old Roy’s submission of a three-view plan of a Nieuport Scout biplane.

By that point, having attended Reay Central School in Stockwell, Roy had joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps (later renamed the Air Training Corps), and was attached to No 343 Camberwell Squadron, and promoted to Cadet Flight Sergeant. His draughtsmanship had won him commissions for technical aircraft drawings from the Air Training Corps Gazette, and he was his squadron’s lecturer on aircraft recognition. With invasion by the Germans seemingly imminent, he recalled his NCO’s command to go down fighting and “take one with you, lad”.

A 1967 Heinkel HE177 illustration by Cross
A 1967 Heinkel HE177 illustration by Cross - Alamy

Cross left school in 1940, before his 16th birthday. His poor eyesight meant he could not enlist as aircrew, so he took work at a Thameside shipping office, where seeing the barges and the last of the sailing coasters gave him a lifelong love of sea and ships.

By 1942 his pamphlet on US Army aircraft in use by the RAF was in wide circulation, and Cross was given Air Ministry accreditation to join press trips to RAF airfields. James Hay Stevens, an older ATC Gazette contributor whom Cross idolised, recommended him for a job at Fairey Aviation in the technical publications department. He went on to illustrate Air Force maintenance books, pilots’ manuals and his first book – The Birth of the Royal Air Force by Air Commodore J A Chamier – as well as contributing to journals.

After the war, he joined a commercial art studio and became an initiate in the what he called the “mysteries of the de Vilbis airbrush”; he later attended two art colleges. In 1951 he produced a Morris Minor owner’s manual and diagrams of the new Routemaster bus to help staff with maintenance.

More Vintage Years of Airfix Box Art
More Vintage Years of Airfix Box Art

The boom in civilian aviation brought work at The Aeroplane and other magazines, through which he got to meet his aviation heroes, including the aces Douglas Bader and Robert Stanford Tuck, and Joseph Smith, the driving force behind the Spitfire programme at Supermarine.

Cross’s 28 colour paintings of famous civil aircraft for the Shell-Mex book Know Your Airliners allowed him to break out of technical drawings and into colour advertisements, which were easier to do and more lucrative.

As Britain’s aviation industry declined, he reinvented himself as a car artist, like his illustration hero Frank Wootton, and in 1962 he did a series of motoring covers for the boys’ comic Eagle, with aviation covers for Swift. His first order from Airfix was for artwork for a Dornier Do 217.

As a marine painter, he had many one-man shows and sold his work through a fine art gallery in Pall Mall.

Celebration of Flight
Celebration of Flight

He illustrated many books, including The Jet Aircraft of the World (with William Green, 1955) and Spitfire (with Gerald Scarborough, 1971), and his work was the subject of several others, including Celebration of Flight: The Aviation Art of Roy Cross (with Arthur Ward, 2002), Celebration of Sail (2004), and Airfix: The Vintage Years of Airfix Box Art (with Arthur Ward, 2009).

He was one of the founding members in 1954 of the Society of Aviation Artists, and was elected to the Royal Society of Marine Artists in 1977.

His passions, apart from his art, were frequent changes of car (“wish I could drive them all”), and cream cakes.

His wife Rita, whom he married in 1952, died in 1985. Their son survives him.

Roy Cross, born April 23 1924, died April 24 2024

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