Portrait of an Artist

One of the top illustrators of his day and a fixture of San Francico’s North Beach neighborhood, David Grove was also a Corvette enthusiast of the first order, having owned a ’53 for over 50 years.

January 23, 2014

Also from Issue 88

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David Grove was an uncommon Corvette collector. An urbane, intellectual and idiosyncratic man, Grove launched his career as an illustrator in Paris and lived much of his life in San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood of North Beach. The tall, lanky Europhile smoked French cigarettes and wore Spanish boots, but when it came to cars, his taste was decidedly American. During the last 40 years of his life, the only vehicles he owned were Corvettes. In addition, Grove was special in that he owned a ’53 Corvette for over five decades. Moreover, he regularly drove this car (number 149 of 300 built) and performed nearly all of its maintenance, right up until his death on October 25, 2012.

Born in Washington, D.C. on February 27, 1940, David Donner Grove was destined to become an artist. His mother, Jean, was a sculptor, and his father, Edward, was a noted engraver. At the age of six, Grove won an award for one of his water-color paintings, a surprisingly accurate rendition of a locomotive. Soon thereafter, the Grove family, which included David’s younger brother, Eric, moved to Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia.

Art literally permeated the Grove household. In his book, David Grove: An Illustrated Life, published in 2011, Grove wrote, “It was a pretty normal childhood except that it was passed in a home that smelled of turpentine and linseed oil towards my father’s sky-lit studio on the top and tended to be awash in wood chips and marble dust towards my mother’s heavy sculpture studio in the basement.”

By the time he neared the end of high school and was making decisions about college, Grove was an accomplished artist. The teenager was aware of the difficulty of turning his passion into a career, however, and he was not sure being an artist would be the best way to contribute to his Cold War-torn country. “I was going to be a chemical engineer,” he wrote. “This was 1957-1958. Sputnik. Big science push.”

Ironically, the very practical and immediate concern of funding his college education steered Grove back in the direction of the arts. His parents had previously submitted a portfolio of his work to the National Scholastic Art Awards Competition. A year later, Grove was granted a two-year scholarship to the Syracuse University School of Art.

Still harboring the notion that he had to learn a useful trade, Grove entered college thinking he would study industrial design—especially automotive styling. As with most young car nuts, Grove had spent a lot of time drawing cars as a kid; he just happened to be a lot better at it than his peers. Once school started, however, it wasn’t long before he lost his practical resolve. “After the first few months of nothing but drawing and painting…all day every day, the industrial design idea kind of evaporated and something older and deeper began to emerge.” That something was illustration.

Grove remembered the illustrations in some of his favorite books that his father read to him and his brother—adventure books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “He made sure we observed everything about and within those wonderful images,” wrote Grove. When he was at Syracuse, illustrations were still a crucial element in magazines, especially ones targeted at women—ladies’ journals, as they were called. Grove studied and was inspired by the work of Bernie Fuch and Mark English, two established illustrators out of Detroit.

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