Motion pictures

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 22

Motion pictures

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 22

Dexter Brown is the world's foremost painter of motor sports. He explains to Matthew Wilcox what drives him – and how a charity exhibition to be held at Bonhams has kept him on track

"The only thing I have never done is still life," says Dexter Brown, "If it doesn't move I don't paint it." It is this obsession with movement that has made Brown one of the best known painters of motor sports, although his eclectic career has seen him portray everything from punk rock to theater – not to mention a period behind the wheel itself. The latter, he insists, is behind him. "These days I am very happy to be driven by other people in their expensive Ferraris. I feel I have done that bit."

Now, for an exhibition at Bonhams in aid of Combat Stress, the charity for war veterans suffering psychological after-effects of conflict, he has combined his love of show business with his long-standing passion for motorcars.

"I have been involved with motor-racing a long time," he explains. "There was a girl I was at Harrow School of Art with in the sixties, whose father raced a vintage Bentley. To get in his good books, I ended up spending my weekends changing wheels."

Brown quit his job at an advertising agency to paint beside the tracks, and eventually graduated to competition hill-climbs in a heavily modified Jaguar XK120. He is, by his own admission, restless. "You are your own worst enemy if you are a creative person. You are never happy, it's all about a bit of a challenge. It doesn't matter if you are a writer, singer, painter or whatever, you're never satisfied with what you do, you just hope that a few things come off."

It was in this spirit that he launched himself in a new direction in 1978, when he found himself captivated by the energy of performers such as Toyah Willcox, Debbie Harry and Suzi Quatro at the fabled Electric Ballroom in Camden. As Willcox reminisced in a recent interview, "He used to come to the live shows and paint, he'd be on the side of the stage and quickly sketching away in pastels. The drawings were astonishing. The energy that comes out of his work ..." The collaboration proved so fruitful that Willcox asked Brown to design her album covers and even her stage costume for her tour in the winter of 1981. A subsequent exhibition of Brown's pop portraits made an impression on the executives of London's Capital Radio, who owned the Duke of York theater. For five years he was the artist-in-residence at the theater, sitting in on plays and in dressing rooms, and given the task of portraying actors such as Al Pacino, Glenda Jackson and Billy Connolly.

"I was always given Box D, slightly up from stage level, all to myself. I felt a bit like Lautrec, scribbling away trying to catch the play ... a bit of movement, personality, action." More recent celebrity portraits, inspired by film and TV, include Nicole Kidman, Billie Piper and Angelina Jolie.

The theatrical experience was rather like being trackside at a race. "I started off with cars, but I have always had the need to keep moving. So I did nude paintings, then figures, then street scenes. For nine years I just painted portraits. I always used gouache for those because I could get softer tones, a softer image. Acrylic is great if you are doing racing cars, or something with grit and thunder, but if you are dealing with someone's face you need a bit more flexibility."

Brown is delighted that part of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings is going to Combat Stress. "With the 100th anniversary of the First World War in all our minds," he says, "we are aware of the debt we owe those who fight on our behalf. Combat Stress does an excellent job helping men and women of all ages and backgrounds who have jeopardized their mental wellbeing in the defense of our country."

After working at a frantic pace for the past 12 months to prepare the exhibition, Brown might be entitled to a break, but the next project already looms. "Somebody has asked me to paint their Ferrari. Literally paint it. I did a BMW some years ago, and eight or ten years ago I painted a Ferrari in Germany." A case of life reflecting art.

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Art in Motion, a selling exhibition of new paintings by Dexter Brown will be on show at Bonhams New Bond Street from 16 - 27 February. Part of the proceeds will go to Combat Stress. Admission is free.

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