MOTORING / Great cars, great paintwork: Phil Llewellin meets an artist who captures impressions of classic motoring
Saturday 29 May 1993
Sixty years later, Arts Review had this to say about a painting in Dexter Brown's first one-man show: 'The large Cornering is a fine example of this technique, where the real subject of the picture is movement, the basic image a car at speed, and the final effect a brilliant vortex of colour.'
Mr Brown, 51, is a charming and modest man who likes to paint alfresco outside his home in a tranquil London suburb. He jokes about 'eccentric semi-abstract' being the best way to describe his work. Recently he changed his style and devoted five years to a series of pictures that the Impressionists might have painted had they known about motor cars.
The dominant theme is racing, on dusty roads flanked by excited crowds in straw hats, flowing dresses and jaunty parasols. One of the most dramatic paintings depicts a huge Benz locked in wheel-to-wheel combat with an equally vast Itala during the 1908 French Grand Prix. Another depicts two elegant women and a 1912 Renault. The ladies are undressing for a swim in an idyllic field stippled with wild flowers. Most of the paintings were sold to Ray Holland, America's greatest collector of automotive art.
Professional and personal considerations convinced Mr Brown that he should adopt a pseudonym for this out-of-character experiment. De Bruyne was the choice, but the artist's true identity has ceased to be a secret. These beautiful and evocative visions of Edwardian motoring in all its colourful splendour have attracted enough attention to be published as prints. They have just become available for pounds 85 from Wessex Art.
A few years ago, when the market for automobilia was at its peak, original de Bruynes were selling for between pounds 15,000 and pounds 20,000. Dexter Brown's semi-abstract paintings now fetch from pounds 1,000 to pounds 8,000. Pininfarina, probably the most distinguished of the great Italian car stylists, has been an enthusiastic patron for almost 30 years.
Mr Brown's reaction to de Bruyne's success mingles delight with a hint of surprise. He cheerfully admits that hard-nosed art critics could be forgiven for dismissing the paintings as 'a load of chocolate-box mush'.
Not a man to take himself too seriously, he promptly produces a box of 'Classic Wheels' chocolates made by Kinnerton Confectionery, a company whose owner runs one of the most coveted of all classic Ferraris. Lamborghini Miura, Alfa Romeo Monza, Jaguar D-type, Bugatti Type 35 and other classics rasp and snarl across the pralines.
'The de Bruyne thing happened when a friend asked if I had ever considered painting cars in a completely different style,' he recalls. 'Few of my favourite artists painted motoring scenes, although they lived at the start of the motoring age. So there was a void to be filled.
'The period appealed to me - one reason being that I have a bit of a romantic, rose-tinted thing about women in period costumes - but I've always had a problem relating my style to Edwardian cars.'
Painting started after each wooden frame and linen canvas had been 'distressed' to create an impression of age. This was not an attempt to trick buyers into thinking they had stumbled on a genuine turn-of-the-century masterpiece, he stresses. It was like an actor getting into character. Mr Brown knows all about that sort of thing. During a sabbatical from automotive work he spent several years as artist-in-residence at the Duke of York theatre in London, painting actors such as Glenda Jackson, Al Pacino and Rula Lenska. Other portrait subjects have included David Bowie, Kate Bush and Bob Geldof.
'Old photographs provided reference material for the de Bruyne paintings, but none of them are direct copies,' he explains. 'The aim was to paint the sort of poetry that was dancing around in my mind, mixed up with thoughts about how Monet, Manet and Renoir would have handled each subject. The race scenes were painted as I would like to see them if I took a trip in a time machine.'
The initial impetus came from his parents. His father was an Indian Army sergeant who painted portraits as a hobby. His mother discovered and exploited a considerable talent for floral art. Dexter Brown studied at Harrow College of Art before taking the freelance plunge in 1962, initially working as an illustrator for clients who included Shell and Ferodo.
'Wildlife was the main interest when I first realised that I was heading for a career as a professional artist. I saw myself going on safari with a paintbrush, being chased by lions. The car thing happened at art college, where I met a girl whose father raced a vintage Bentley and needed a bit of help at weekends: you know how you get drawn into things. I took to cars in general, and racing in particular.
'The involvement became more direct when we built a very hot Jaguar XK120 with a 4.2-litre engine that put out about 300bhp. Our first competitive event was a speed trial in Belgium. I did fastest time of the day in terms of acceleration and top speed. The average for the two runs was
A trunkful of period costumes - striped blazers and straw boaters - complements his current passion for vintage bicycles. Remembered exploits include riding a penny-farthing from London to Brighton.
Monet, Manet and Renoir would have been quite happy in such
Wessex Art, Studio House, 17 Cumnor
Road, Bournemouth BH1 1JR
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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