David Gentleman’s London eye
Dan Carrier talks to an artist whose new book takes a personal look at his seven decades in the capital
05 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
David Gentleman’s sketch of Camden Lock
HE is, artist David Gentleman says, “still getting used to London”, though he has spent 70 years walking the streets and committing what he sees to paper.
Now he invites us all on a journey across seven decades of work to look through an artist’s eyes in a new book that spans his extraordinary career.
Called My Town, it is a compilation split into three parts, covering 70 years’ worth of illustrations. It focuses on a city that has been ever under his watchful eye since David moved to London in 1950 as a fresh-faced art student, recently demobbed from two years as a National Serviceman.
Part one covers the London he got to know as a student and then earning a living as a jobbing artist.
The second section centres on the studio on the top floor of his Gloucester Crescent home, where he has worked for 50 years. The third concentrates on the studies he has made of the area within walking distance of his front door.
The journey begins with work from his years as a student at the Royal College of Art in Kensington. It was here he met giants of 20th-century British art – Edward Ardizzone, John Nash, Edward Bawden – whose influences peer out from behind his talent.
“When I arrived in 1950, the war still hung over the streets,” he recalls. “There were still horrible smogs. It could be a filthy place, but I loved walking and exploring.
“New buildings were going up. Our tutors told us to get out and draw, draw – and one crucial element of my course was architecture.
“There were wonderful flats being built in Pimlico, so I drew them – they looked so optimistic and well designed. I also studied St Paul’s, noting not just its aesthetics but how it was designed. We went to Greenwich to the Naval College – and the view at the top of the park is very poignant to me. It is an example of old London down in front of you, and then in the distance new London dominating the skyline.”
Early commissioned work after graduating in 1955 included the front cover for a book by cookery writer Patience Gray, called Plats Du Jour. He had been advised not to ask for royalties but a flat fee. “This was a mistake,” he says. “50,000 copies were sold in the first year and it has been reprinted many times.”
Patience wrote a lifestyle column for The Observer and he sketched images for her of shops in Fitzrovia, including a delicatessen which, for 1955, sold seemingly exotic foods such as pasta and olive oil.
Other early commissions were for firms based in the West End, Mayfair and the City – “press ads for tonic water and sugary drinks or vintners and brewers, big oil and chemical and pharmaceutical companies. Much later came ads for an insecticide, which turned out to blind some of the people who sprayed it. This task in particular made me think harder about what the commissions I took on were really responsible for.”
Decades later, he would use his art to show his political beliefs, creating iconic posters against the Iraq War.
In 1957, he was commissioned by the newly founded Sunday Telegraph. He used wood engravings and it became a process that he used to make a piece of art that has been seen by millions of people – the decorative figures that grace platforms at Charing Cross. “I had become interested in wood engraving as a student,” he remembers. “It is very laborious but it is a lovely medium.
“My father had collected a whole set of Thomas Berwick’s series of books about animals and birds, so I recognised wood engraving as a medium early on.”
A view of the Thames by David Gentleman
Each day David takes the world outside his doorstep back home with him. “Camden Town has held my attention and interest throughout my working life,” he writes.
“How it looks, how it has changed, the places within walking distance and the people who live, work or simply flock here – all are fascinating to me.”
He has drawn the “rackety streets with remnants of historic social, commercial and industrial activity, Nash’s terraces and the beautiful canal and the nearby parks, roads, railways and, above all, the different people who more than anything else now make up Camden’s character”.
And from his studio he has watched the skyline of this city change gradually, his artist’s eye noticing it all in detail.
“I have seen the changing city from here too,” he says.
“I have gradually lost the views up to Hampstead Heath and Highgate, and then to the east to the Caledonian Road Clock Tower.
“I could once see the Dutch gables on the Primrose Hill school my children went to. Within the last year that has also disappeared.
“I do not want to sound like I am griping. It is simply reality, and I cannot help but see it.”
He adds that abstraction in art is all the rage and representation is less fashionable – but such art helps you consider your environment.
“What is certain is it makes one look harder, more intently and more analytically,” he adds.
“I am still drawing, painting and noticing new things about this town, which I have known and loved almost all my life.”
• My Town: An Artist’s Life in London. By David Gentleman. Particular Books, £25
• An exhibition of the drawings and paintings in the new book is at the Patrick Bourne & Co gallery, 6 St James’s Place, SW1A 1NP from March 11-18.