The Artist’s Passion for the Automobile

Featuring more than 20 original works by artist Melbourne Brindle who was best known for his beautiful paintings and advertorial work featuring some of the world’s favorite autos.

Ewart Melbourne Brindle was born the middle child of seven to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Llewellyn Brindle in 1904. He came by his artistic ability naturally, as his father was a painter and interior designer and his mother an opera singer. This ability first exhibited itself when Mel was a young child and captured images of the tall ships he saw sailing near his hometown of Dromana, Victoria, Australia. It did not take long for young Melbourne to hone his interest in modes of transportation. As a boy of fewer than ten years, Brindle experienced his first sighting of an automobile—but not just any auto. He later learned that he had seen his first Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The experience left an indelible impression on the young boy. As a man in his late 60s, Brindle recalled the incident: “I can clearly remember my boyhood vision of that car today. Just by closing my eyes I can bring back the picture. I think I could sketch it even now in some detail.”

In 1914, his father’s work took the family patriarch to the United States, chosen by the Australian Government as a national representative at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco that year. Unfortunately, World War I erupted following Arthur’s departure to America, and the family was not reunited until 1918, when they all moved to San Francisco. Following the lean years of the war, the family’s finances were in poor condition, and the children, still of school age, were given the choice to remain in school or enter the workforce to make their own way. Melbourne, then 14, opted for work. After a brief stint at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, he took a job as a letterer for a San Francisco department store. Ten years saw him rise through the art department, eventually becoming an advertising illustrator.

After a variety of job transitions, including a short time running his own studio, Brindle finally realized independent recognition for his work. In 1934, the advertising agency he was working for was awarded the account to promote Hawaii, then a U.S. territory. The agency’s artists were responsible for creating preliminary drawings, with the finished artwork completed by painters and photographers. As the promotion’s deadline loomed near, and with no suitable artwork completed, Brindle submitted his own work to the commission. (It is of some note that legendary automotive artist Peter Helck’s work was among those rejected for the promotion.) Not only was Brindle’s piece selected for use, it won a gold medal at the New York Art Directors Club’s annual show, a feat one of his 20 subsequent illustrations for the campaign would repeat four years later.

Artist Melbourne Brindle works in his studio.
Artist Melbourne Brindle works in his studio.

In 1938 Brindle moved his family to New York and opened his own studio once again. His work would be featured in and on the covers of such pivotal magazines as National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s and Cosmopolitan. His work with Colliers’s included an illustration of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight in 1903. The original now resides in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

Despite the varied subject matter that comprised his career, Brindle never lost sight of his earliest passion: automobiles. In 1939 he completed his first piece for the auto industry with Ford, followed closely by an ad for Packard in Fortune. From 1946 to 1950, almost every Packard advertisement was illustrated by Brindle, his work focusing heavily on the human aspect, depicting cars as a complement to life. But Packard was by no means Brindle’s only stake in the auto trade. His work would grace such influential pieces as GM’s 1949 Annual Report as well as their booklet, Famous GM Cars: A General Motors Family Album, a piece that featured nine paintings by Brindle. Perhaps most significant was his work for Ford in 1955, when his art introduced the Thunderbird.

His passion for the automobile, and more specifically Rolls-Royce automobiles, was rekindled in 1957, when he encountered a 1910 Barker Flush-Side Torpedo Phaeton on tour. This car so resembled the Rolls Brindle had seen as a child that he conceived of a book with nothing but paintings of Silver Ghosts, beginning with the Barker-bodied Phaeton. It was years later, with several paintings completed, that Brindle met Curtis Benjamin, then chairman of the board for publishing house McGraw-Hill. Benjamin was not only interested in the project, he agreed to publish it. The result was 20 Silver Ghosts: The Incomparable Pre World War I Rolls-Royce, a compendium of 20 paintings, text based on Brindle’s exhaustive research notes and a collection of study illustrations and detail views of the paintings themselves.

The work in 20 Silver Ghosts represents a labor of love. Of the 20 vehicles featured, only eight existed for use as models. The remaining cars became the subject of exhaustive detective work on Brindle’s part. He scoured the world, searching for magazine ads, articles and photographs in his quest. By the end, he knew every intimate detail of the cars. Such was his familiarity that he stated in a 1972 interview, “I know every nut and bolt—everything back to the firewall. If you’ll count you’ll find there are exactly 34 round-headed rivets on either side of the three hinges in a Silver Ghost bonnet. There are 16 sections in each of the three hinges. I know the radiator core is recessed three-quarters of an inch behind the front edge of a 1911 Ghost radiator. Eighty-six spokes make one wire wheel on the 1910 Barker Torpedo.”

For you see, Brindle did not merely paint cars, he was an avid collector. As a child, and with a child’s simplicity, he knew from an early age that he wanted to drive a Rolls-Royce. His first dream was to be a chauffeur of one of the majestic vehicles, and as he grew, so did his dream to one day own a Rolls-Royce. In 1932, lacking the wherewithal to own one, he and his older brother built what has been described as a synthetic Rolls. The finished product utilized parts from 11 different cars, including many genuine Rolls-Royce components such as fenders and a radiator. In place of the trademark RR radiator badge, the pair substituted BB for Brindle Brothers. By 1938, when he moved his family to New York, he did so in his own Silver Phantom. The marques that followed were equally legendary: Crane-Simplex, Packard, Dietrich, Locomobile and Stevens-Duryea round out the mix. In fact, many of his personal cars found their way into Brindle’s paintings.
The paintings on display at the Museum are part of a collection of 29 pieces donated by Charles Cawley in 1999 and include paintings of a number of Brindle’s personal cars. His art is defined by not only the realism achieved, but by his use of trompe l’oeil, French for “deceive the eye,” in which realistic images are used to create the illusion that the objects exist in three dimensions. Brindle used this technique to tell a story, sometimes quite literally, as in the case of the 1927 Bugatti Type 41 Royale, in which he includes a written history of the car that appears to be tucked into the lower rail of the painting’s frame.

Perhaps most significant to the collection is the painting of Brindle’s 1913 Stevens-Duryea C Touring car, a vehicle Brindle himself donated to the Owls Head Transportation Museum in 1986 following his move to Camden, Maine in the 1980s. Affectionately known as Stevie, it represents one of six such cars owned by the artist and was honored by being requested by his family to be included in Brindle’s funeral procession in 1995. The car is featured in the exhibition along with one of Brindle’s preliminary studies as well as the finished painting. Despite his love for all majestic automobiles, Brindle’s feelings can best be summed up in his own words: “None commands my respect or stimulates my imagination as the Rolls-Royce, especially those of the golden era before World War I.”