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Robert W. Bradford
Acclaimed Aviation Artist

On December 17, 1923, on the 20th anniversary of Orville Wright's first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, identical twin boys were born in Toronto. The Bradford twins grew up having identical major interests art and aviation.

Robert and James Bradford attended Saturday morning classes at the Toronto Art Gallery where they developed their love of sketching and painting. At those classes, Robert was to discover another love his future wife, Ruth.

Robert William Bradford, left, was made a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn in 1989. [Photo, courtesy, Robert Bradford]

When they were 18, the brothers simultaneously joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and became pilots. While Jim served as a flying instructor in western Canada, Robert became a staff pilot with the Royal Air Force, stationed on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Seriously injured in 1944 in a flying accident that killed his navigator, Robert was recovering to flight status when World War II ended.

Upon returning to Toronto following the Armistice, Bob rejoined the Easybuilt Model Aeroplane Company where he designed and built rubber-powered balsawood miniature aircraft, dear to the memories of many youngsters worldwide who experimented with them for the next decade. In 1949, he became an illustrator for A.V. Roe Company at Malton, Ontario. At the time, the company was working on the Avro Jetliner, an aircraft that, although it was ahead of its time, was doomed because of a lack of government support.

With cancellation of the Jetliner, Bob Bradford moved to de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. where, in three years, he became chief illustrator. By 1966, moreover, he had become, in Ottawa, assistant to the founding curator of the National Aeronautical Collection, the late Ken Molson.

When Molson retired in 1967, Bradford was made curator of Canada's priceless aircraft collection which was bleakly housed in shabby wooden hangers. He immediately set about securing permanent, fireproof housing for the irreplaceable fleet. As acting director at the National Museum of Science and Technology in 1982, Bradford initiated a drive for national recognition of this priceless collection. He was backed enthusiastically by the Friends of the National Aviation Museum, a registered charitable fundraising group.

By 1984, Bradford had obtained such strong support that he was able to persuade the government of the day to design and build a state of the art museum at Ottawa's Rockcliffe Airport.

For nearly 23 years (1966-1988), Bob Bradford restored flying machines identified with Canada's proud aviation heritage. Throughout this time, this aviation artist continued to render paintings that captured aviation events of historic significance. His captivating work has a huge following and, today, Bradford's paintings are loved by an expanding international audience.

Robert Bradford's painting of the June Bug is a showcase mural on permanent display at The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, New York. Rendered in 1990, Bradford's momentous image depicts Glenn Curtiss in flight in 1908 at Stony Brook Farm in western New York State. This view captures for posterity the first officially observed North American flight of over one kilometre in one direction. [Photo, courtesy Robert Bradford/The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum]

Bradford admits that a certain Jekyll-and-Hyde complex pervades his work: his Dr. Jekyll is the historically accurate portrayer of finely detailed aircraft and flying events ('They are so real, you can hear the engine,' is a frequent comment). On the other hand, Mr. Hyde is the persona revealed in his more subjective and contemplative presentations of nature and, typically, of man-made structures in natural settings.

In 1969, on the 50th anniversary of the transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown, Bradford was asked to create the art for a Canada Post commemorative postage stamp. Later, Canada Post Corporation presented a series of 16 stamps, each featuring Bradford treatments of Canadian-built aircraft. Four stamps were issued for each of the years from 1979 to 1982. Such recognition made Bradford world famous.

Robert William Bradford has been honoured with two major international awards. In 1974, he was the first Canadian presented with the Artists Award of the American Aviation Historical Society and, in 1981, received France's Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Paul Tissandier Award for Artistic and Curatorial Accomplishment in Aviation.

A retrospective of his work was mounted in 1995 at the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York. A large mural of Glen H. Curtiss piloting his June Bug in 1908 is on permanent display there at this pioneer aviation site.

A lifetime member of the Royal Canadian Institute, Bradford was named patron of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society in 1988. The following year, he was made a member of the Order of Canada and in 1996 was inducted at Wetaskawin, Alberta, as an esteemed member of Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame.

The Bradfords reside today in a 140-year-old stone house near Ottawa where Robert, one of the world's most respected aviation artists, continues his life's work.

A.J. Bauer