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 Gentlemans
home. Its 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: Ive done wood engravings, lithography, screen
prints, but watercolour is the thing that Ive done longest
and most consistently: its my basic medium. If I had to do
only one thing it would be watercolour. Its fresh, its
light, and easy to cart around, and you can be spontaneous or detailed
with it, and you dont need to wait for it to dry as you go
along in order for you to keep working on it. But its
work in other mediums for which hes 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
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:
Id 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 NOs, turning the crowds messy
noise into a loud unison. They looked great, and its
that modified photograph that persuaded Stop the War to print them.
In person, hes 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 Martins 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.
Its the smallest member of the commonwealth, its
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
its up to eight now. And the scenery that youre looking
at there is coral which theyve 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 nobodys 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 dont 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 Regents
Park, both from the last year.
Ive 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 hes 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.
Theres nothing Id 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.