You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Classic car art that's more compelling than photography

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/04/2018 By Paul Staheli
a car parked on the side of a building © Provided by The Telegraph a close up of a car © Provided by The Telegraph

Like a lot of kids, I grew up loving cars. With me it was always classics, and when I was about 12 I bought a picture from a local poster shop of one of my favorites, a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. My funds only stretched to a 6 by 8 inch print in a clip-frame, but the image was so beautifully painted I just had to have it - almost photo-real, but somehow better than anything a camera could do.

I displayed it on my wall and stared at it longingly, as if hoping it would somehow become real and roar to life but, being 12, I never gave a thought to who the artist was.

Fast forward four decades, and in 2015 I moved to live and work in Los Angeles. On my morning dog-walks around Venice Beach I struck up a friendship with an older neighbour, a fellow British ex-pat named Harold.

a red vintage car parked in a parking lot © Provided by The Telegraph

As I got to know him he told me he liked to paint cars, and showed me a book which showcased some of his pieces.

Entitled An Artfull Life, the foreword was written by the visionary futurist and Blade Runner concept artist Syd Mead, and it described the images contained in the book as “considerably beyond photography”.

a car parked on the side of a road © Provided by The Telegraph a car parked on the side of a road © Provided by The Telegraph

It was immediately clear what Mead meant. The cover showed a lovingly-detailed Mercedes 300SL, raised gullwing doors reflected in its gleaming black bodywork, and the pages were filled with stunning depictions of vintage cars - priceless Bugattis, wild George Barris (creator of the original Batmobile) customs and chrome-laden Detroit classics set against vivid, colorful scenes of Americana.

Among them was an image I knew well: to my amazement, Harold was the artist who had painted “my” Ferrari.

I now know Harold Cleworth to be one of the great names in automotive art, a painter who has headlined exhibitions at the famed Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and created posters for the Pebble Beach Concours and prestigious Barrett Jackson auctions. Countless magazines have commissioned his work, and his pieces adorn collectors’ garages (US TV presenter and car enthusiast Jay Leno is a big fan), car dealerships and schoolboys’ bedrooms worldwide.

a close up of a car © Provided by The Telegraph

Born in Lancashire, Harold credits his passion for machinery to his upbringing in the industrial north, and to his father, a bus driver who loved tinkering with engines. But his journey to becoming what Autoweek described as “the painter laureate of the

automobile” was never part of any grand plan. After graduating from Manchester College of Art, Harold moved to London and worked at Decca records designing album covers for The Rolling Stones and The Who, then spent five years as an illustrator at Woman’s Own.

He remembers Sixties London as an exciting time, but soon came to realise that life as a graphic designer was not for him; he wanted to be a serious artist.

a red car © Provided by The Telegraph

“I was getting stale,” he says. “How many times can you illustrate Barbara Cartland love stories?”

A chance encounter with some American party guests convinced Harold that a change of scene was the answer, and within months a storefront on San Francisco’s vibrant Haight Street had become his home and gallery. “I wanted to be a painter but I had no idea what my subject would be,” he remembers. “I embraced hippie crafts and for almost a year ended up doing macrame weavings at Michael Shrieve’s house, the drummer for Santana. Anything to make money.”

It wasn’t long before the move paid off; for while California may be the birthplace of hippiedom, it’s also home to a more enduring cult - that of the automobile. The sight of one of Detroit’s most iconic creations, sun bouncing off its gleaming fenders, would be Harold’s eureka moment.

“I remember going to the Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1959, and among the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys was a silver 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible,” he recalls. “It looked like something from another planet. I think England was appalled by the bad taste, but I secretly fell in love with it.

“Years later when I saw one in San Francisco, a pink one, I just had to paint it. It never occurred to me that cars would become my muse.”

Word of mouth spread, and before long owners and collectors were visiting Harold’s gallery to have their prized Ferraris and Packards immortalised on canvas. “I soon realised nobody had really painted cars before,” he says. “It just grew organically.”

Within a couple of years Harold was making a living from prints and commissions. He’d found his true calling and hasn’t looked back.

Of course Harold was delighted when I told him I’d inadvertently bought one of his pictures all those years ago. Now 78, he has no plans to retire and can be found at his easel every day, always on the lookout for new subjects. When I told him about my own car, a 1967 Mercury Cougar XR7 GT - something of a rarity even here in California - he asked if he could see it, so I drove it round and immediately he decided he’d like to paint it.

He wasn’t touting for business - that’s not his style - and he didn’t expect me to buy the finished product. He just loved how the car looked. “It never gets old for me,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve repeated myself a few times, but it’s in my blood. I’ve tried to get away from it but there are millions of cars I haven’t painted yet.”

a man standing in front of a car © Provided by The Telegraph

As luck would have it, Harold completed the Cougar just before my 50th birthday. After a couple of secret meetings with the artist, my wife Kate presented it to me on the big day - with Harold present for the unveiling. So thanks to a strange and happy coincidence (and to my dog), I’ve gone from having a cheap Cleworth print in a clip-frame to owning an original.

It may not be a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso, but seeing my own classic immortalised by that same artist after all these years is good enough for me. Plus I get to have a nice chat with Harold every morning - and be the first to see the latest creations from the undisputed king of automotive art taking shape.

For tips and advice,  visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter  here

A-Z Car Finder

More classic car stories at Telegraph Cars

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Telegraph

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon