Last Update: Friday 26th November 2004
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Harbour wall, Malaga, Andalusia, 1957

Primrose Hill under snow, 2003

A detail from Weathered and blackened coral pinnacles, Nauru an island in the Pacific, 1976

Fifty years of looking and learning for artist David

Artist David Gentleman is perhaps the last of the great polymath designer/painters. From postage stamps to anti-war posters his work is instantly recognisable.
Now a new exhibition celebrates half a century of his watercolours, writes Jonathan Allen

SEVERAL empty frames hang on the walls of David Gentleman’s home. It’s not because 74-year-old artist suddenly decided to compete with Hirst, Emin et al in the conceptual art stakes. Bare walls are what an artist is left with when the curators from the Fine Art Society in Bond Street sweep through as they piece together a retrospective.
The show, entitled Watercolours from Andalusia to Zanzibar, reaches back to work from 1956, with views of Mistley Quay in Essex painted when Gentleman was freshly graduated from the Royal College of Art.
He says: “I’ve done wood engravings, lithography, screen prints, but watercolour is the thing that I’ve done longest and most consistently: it’s my basic medium. If I had to do only one thing it would be watercolour. It’s fresh, it’s light, and easy to cart around, and you can be spontaneous or detailed with it, and you don’t need to wait for it to dry as you go along in order for you to keep working on it.” But it’s work in other mediums for which he’s probably best known. The platform mural at Charing Cross Station is taken from his woodcut prints and blown up 20 times or so (the original prints hang in his hallway).
In February 2003 up to two million protesters waved the placard he designed for the Stop the War coalition, which bore a bold, black, blood-spattered ‘NO’. He explains how he got the job: “I’d had a photograph of a protest march from somewhere else, and it reminded me that protest marches in general look pretty ragged. And the reason they look ragged is because people have all made their own posters.”
He carefully overlaid each individual banner in the photographs with one of his ‘NO’s, turning the crowd’s messy noise into a loud unison. “They looked great, and it’s that modified photograph that persuaded Stop the War to print them.”
In person, he’s far from being a firebrand. Softly spoken, he chooses his words very carefully, resisting my invitation to have a pop at the current generation of art students pouring out of the Slade and St Martin’s after four years of doing anything but lithography and woodcutting. His serious countenance lightens when his wife Sue brings up some tea and he suggests she should bring up the grandchildren too, “as proof of our humanity”.
He has found a particular niche designing stamps – he says he has learnt a lot from concentrating an idea in such a small space and making it intelligible.
One series of watercolours being shown is an offshoot of this activity. He shows me a page in the catalogue, and says: “These are the island of Nauru in the middle of the Pacific. It was an unknown speck on the equator for a long time.
“It’s the smallest member of the commonwealth, it’s four miles across and twelve miles round, but it had an ambitious stamp issuing programme, and in the 1970s I went off there to design some stamps for them. At that time there were Nauruans who were there as indentured labour and some expats from Australia and New Zealand and Britain and a lot of Chinese shopkeepers, but there would only have been about 3,000 people on it at that time. I think it’s up to eight now. And the scenery that you’re looking at there is coral which they’ve dug the soil out from because the soil is virtually pure phosphate, so for about 15 or 20 years they made a great deal of money selling this as fertiliser.”
The soil eventually ran out, leaving behind a treacherous-looking landscape of white coral, resembling fields of giant stumpy teeth.
He said: “I had the sense of being the first artist to look at it, which was wonderful. The islanders wanted their triumphs shown on the stamps – they wanted the cantilever cranes that lifted the phosphate into ships, but I said nobody’s going to be interested in cantilever cranes. But I also made in my contract that I had the final say.” And so the coral teeth featured in the final design.
Despite having travelled from Andalusia to Zanzibar, David who lives in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, is happy to remain in London.
“I love London,” he says. “That sounds a bit too quoteable, forget I said that. But I don’t itch at the moment to be off any place else. I love being in France and Italy, but I also think London is extremely interesting. I like the variety and mix of people, and the vitality of London.”
Included in the retrospective is a painting of a snow-covered Primrose Hill – a winter wonderland drawn partly from memory – and the Macclesfield or “Blow-up” Bridge in Regent’s Park, both from the last year.
“I’ve drawn it before,” he says about the bridge. “I love it particularly in the spring. This is cow parsley and hawthorn, all this white stuff. It looks shabby at this time of year, but in the spring it looks absolutely magic.”
New challenges continue to present themselves – one his most recent commissions was from the Royal Mint to design a coin to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain. For his design he fused together, playing card-style, the ladies gracing the countries’ respective banknotes: Marianne and Britannia.
Increasingly he’s less interested in commissions, and is happy working on his own projects. On the go at the moment are more Primrose Hill pictures, as well as studies of the Heath.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” he says.

David Gentleman: Watercolours from Andalusia to Zanzibar is at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street,
runs from November 30 to December 19.
Call 020 7 629 5116.