David Gentleman has lived in London for almost seventy years, most of it on the same street. His latest book (My Town: An Artist’s Life in London, published by Particular Books, March 2020) is a record of a lifetime spent observing, drawing and getting to know the city, bringing together work from across his whole career, from his earliest sketches to watercolours painted just a few months ago. Accompanied by reflections on the process of drawing and personal thoughts on the ever-changing city, it is a celebration of London, and the joy of noticing, looking and capturing the world. This is the thirty-third article in our regular ‘My London’ series.
One of the first sketches I did of London as a student was a picture of the gasometer in Chelsea, drawn on tinted paper with a black fountain pen, one evening in the summer of 1951. We had been told by our tutor to get out of the studio and draw the real world outside and I can remember cycling from the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, leaning my bike against a wall, and working for around an hour. I was fascinated by the bizarre and beautiful structure.
Last November, around seven decades after I did that drawing, I walked to King’s Cross and painted the gasometers there, this time using watercolours, but working similarly quickly, balancing my drawing board on the parapet of a footbridge. These old industrial structures are no longer functioning, either preserved as curiosities or converted into luxury flats, but they remain intriguing to look at and draw.
I’ve been drawing and painting London more or less constantly for the past seventy years. The style of my work has shifted and developed over the decades, but the act of recording what I see has remained remarkably constant. Around me, the city has changed profoundly. It has grown taller and busier; the roads have filled up with cars and lorries and the skyline is increasingly being eaten up by ambitious and greedy new buildings. Much of the city I first painted as a twenty-year-old is unrecognisable, although patches of it seem very little altered. I’ve been thinking about the contrasts between how London looked then and how it is now as I’ve gathered together pictures for my new book.
When I moved to London from Hertford to take up a place at the Royal College of Art in 1950, the city was still shabby and a bit desolate after the war; we still had food rationing and the occasional cold winter smog. I drew the gloomy left-over bombsites, but noticed how the destruction of so many building had opened up impressive vistas and details of the surviving Wren churches. My student digs were a bit bleak; I lived in a top-floor flat in an attic in Battersea, sharing the bathroom and loo on the floor below with the rest of the household. But London meant independence and I was completely absorbed by my work. I was taught by Edward Ardizzone the illustrator and the painters and engravers John Nash and Edward Bawden. We were occasionally sent out on exploratory architectural trips to the city outside, to look at St Paul’s and Greenwich Hospital and the brand-new Pimlico flats and to draw what then were still industrial buildings on the edge of the Thames.
These early years taught me how to choose likely subjects and then decide on the most interesting point of view, both of which can take a while but waste less time than drawing the wrong thing. Avoiding the most obvious and therefore the most hackneyed subjects sounds sense, even when they are what first caught your eye, but first impressions matter too and can be the truest and most vivid.
The City of London is probably the part of the capital that has undergone the most startling change. I’ve been watching the shifting shape of the City since the 1950s, when I began by designing posters for London Transport and later found myself commissioned to do watercolours to hang in City offices, before embarking in the Eighties on a book of my own about London as it then was. By getting to know the City when it was still largely Victorian, I grew to admire the contrasts between beautiful churches and public buildings from the seventeenth century onwards to Edwardian times.
The more recent and bigger commercial developments of recent decades – much taller and often individually striking structures but collectively a muddle – are using up all the space and for pedestrians much of the sky too. I first noticed the City’s historic street names, like Poultry and Fish Street while wandering about exploring the city with my son when he was young, discovering the old confusing City ground plan which survived the 1666 Great Fire of London by rejecting Wren’s attempts to rationalise it. These historic streets and Wren’s and Hawksmoor’s churches are now getting buried amid the tall new glass and steel buildings. In the late Nineties I noticed how many of the spires were gently slipping out of sight behind the new office blocks that turned people and traffic alike into insects. Finding a good view of the tall new City buildings is getting steadily harder because they’re all in front of each other and soon they’ll be solid, like a northern Dubai. I don’t feel sentimental about this transformation, though occasionally the disappearance of skylines and daylight gives me a fleeting pang of regret. But the new buildings, with their clean and often simple outlines, have their own beauty and allure, their glazed surfaces reflecting those of their neighbours as if in an open-air hall of mirrors.
Two days after the Shard opened in 2013 I went to the top floor to draw the view over the City, the half-built Walkie-Talkie rising in the middle and dwarfing the toy-like boats in Thames and the tiny trains snaking about at my feet. From up here the City suddenly seemed both model and muddle – a crowded hotch-potch in which its once-familiar landmarks were already becoming hidden or buried treasures.
After I left the RCA, I was determined to avoid teaching and didn’t want to work in a design studio alongside other people. I’ve managed to work independently, earning a living as an artist ever since, much of the time focused on capturing the changing streets and buildings around me. By the early Sixties London was beginning to look very different, sometimes for the better but not always. I was commissioned to do a series of drawings for a Sunday paper showing how London might look in the new decade. They included aerial views of a new dual-carriageway Park Lane invading what had until then just been park, and a traffic-free Leicester Square. While I was drawing there on the pavement a passer-by stopped to ask angrily why I didn’t get a proper job. Mostly over the decades I have been undisturbed as I’ve drawn or painted. I try to choose spots where I won’t be too disturbed or in the way, and don’t encourage conversation.
The concentration required to paint a building fixes its structure in my mind, so I have very clear memories of streetscapes that have disappeared. In the early Seventies I was asked to document Covent Garden, as part of a campaign to preserve a threatened area. Before it became primarily a tourist attraction, Covent Garden was still relatively unchanged as a fascinating working market surrounded by its own warehouses, a historic bit of London but suddenly under threat when the market was moving to Nine Elms and Covent Garden itself was faced with demolition as its old warehouses and dwellings were pulled down. I was commissioned by Christina Smith, the entrepreneur, philanthropist and friend, to make a set of lithographs whose primary concern was the preservation of a bit of London I’d always loved. The subjects included the eighteenth-century market buildings, the storage warehouses, the flower market, the market men, the Opera House, and some of the almost unchanged streets around them. They also included Ellen Keeley’s workshop, which made and repaired the market barrows and four-wheel trolleys that Covent Garden still depended on as there was little mechanisation then. When the market did move to Nine Elms, some of Keeley’s sturdy barrows were shunted off to Camden Town to survive in the Inverness Street market where its Cockney stallholders still had the strenuous task of hauling them into position every morning.
The changes along the banks of the Thames have been equally dramatic. When I was a student, the Thames was still a romantic place of crane, derricks, lighters, docks and waterside pubs. Even in the Sixties, immense lock-gates still opened to let ocean-going liners into the deep-water docks in the Isle of Dogs and big ships were still docking upstream in the old Pool of London as far as London Bridge. There were only a few really tall buildings sticking up: Big Ben, the Shot Tower, the Shell-Mex building on the Strand, the dome of St Paul’s, Tower Bridge, the power stations – Battersea and Bankside, now Tate Modern – all of them gradually being upstaged by new developments and eventually by the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie. But already the skyline seen from the embankment was changing; its practical (and tempting to draw) off-shore structures called dolphins remained but the derricks had already vanished and the people in the riverside pubs were office workers instead of dockers.
Today the older towers are dwarfed by even bigger ones and much of the riverside beyond Vauxhall is being damaged by glossy developments that use up the best riverside sites, ensuring that no-one else will be able to build in front of them. But even if the cranes and the old romantic-looking warehouses that had survived the blitz have vanished, the stretch from Tower Bridge to Westminster is still beautiful and the river still irresistible to draw, with its sparkle and menace; its beauty and its contrasts: its constant tidal ebb and flow; its muddy colour; its occasional beaches of imported sand and its riverbed of old bricks, rubbish and mud. The river is London’s oldest asset and it is also perhaps the single London feature that seems indestructible.
I moved from Battersea to Camden in 1956. I’d visited this part of London as a very young child, traveling up by train with my parents, both artists who met at Glasgow School of Art in the 1920s. The first London visit I can remember was when I was five in 1935, to see the Silver Jubilee procession – a long boring wait, an endless line of people walking, the train journey home in a carriage full of exhausted policemen going home themselves. On a later more interesting trip they took me to the Zoo and to Primrose Hill where strangely there were no primroses. This was the part of London I chose to return to as an adult, when I’d earned enough money to buy a lease on a small house in a then down-at-heel but leafy crescent in Camden Town, finally gaining a studio of my own; I’ve lived and worked in the same crescent (though not in the same house) ever since. At a glance, much of this part of London is pretty much the same, the streets and houses, the canals and greenery and open spaces, but somehow it has become simultaneously much richer and much poorer. I’ve always loved to draw the rackety streets here with their remnants of historic social, commercial and industrial activity (there are three ex-piano factories only a few streets away); Nash’s terraces, the beautiful canal and the nearby parks, the roads and railways and, above all, the many different people, who more than anything else now make up Camden’s character (even if at weekends the pavements are as crowded as Venice’s with tourists). Over the years I’ve sketched the newly washed but still empty roads in the early morning; the afternoon visitors resting, picnicking or partying by the canal. On summer evenings, I enjoy sitting in the sun outside a pub watching the traffic and the passers-by, and I’ve always liked the wildlife: the seagulls on the pinnacle of Arlington House, the cormorants drying their outstretched wings on the roof of a canal barge. Once a heron flew too low and landed in our garden. Making even quick scribbles of these creatures tells me something new about them and fixes it in my mind.
Over time, the area has changed, tidied itself up and become gentrified, with new neighbours coming and going on the crescent. There are new high-rises and flats, buildings are better looked after, any usable spaces filled in, smaller shops and offices driven out by high rents. The canal is no longer a transporter of heavy goods; its links with the railways ceased as their discarded goods yards were sold off and redeveloped. An Edwardian theatre and music hall has vanished, leaving only its site, but another (though recently badly damaged in a fire) survives as a prosperous dance hall. There are more people and more traffic, and you can no longer buy real snakes and monkeys in Parkway – you have to make do with T-shirts with red buses and Union Jacks on them instead. When I came to this part of London there were no beggars; there are many now.
Over the past two years I’ve been mostly drawing and painting the streets around my home, the market and the endlessly transforming High Street. I return frequently to Primrose Hill, drawn by its unwavering fascination and especially by the spectacular views from the top – of the West End, the City and even the distant Canary Wharf, and how they relate to each other. When I first painted the view from the top of the hill, these landmarks were pretty thin on the ground, and St Paul’s and Big Ben were clearly visible. Now, you can still make them out if you know where to look, but they have been upstaged by the dozens of new towers. The distant views over London vary greatly, depending chiefly on the weather and where the sun is. The hill is always beautiful and always different – the state of the trees, how long the grass is, the way people sit or lie around in it, the current London skyline.
Many of my recent pictures of London were made quickly and on the spot. A drawing can be quick or slow, slight or serious; a rough sketch, jotted down as if in shorthand or more deliberate – it doesn’t much matter which. Even a little touch of watercolour adds information.
I feel as though I’m still getting used to London, even after 70 years here. I’m not in the least nostalgic for the London that has disappeared, but I’m conscious that the process of continuously painting it over the decades has made me acutely aware of the changes. I notice how barricaded parts of Westminster have become, with anti-terror structures, and I remember earlier paintings of Downing Street, which looks by today’s more paranoid standards surprisingly vulnerable. I’m aware of the changing urban wildlife, the disappearance of sparrows and starlings and their replacement by noisy green parakeets. I’m conscious of the changing noises as I work – the sounds of traffic, trains, jays and blackbirds and wrens, car alarms, ice-cream vans; of ambulance and police-car sirens, children in the playground, leaves rustling in the wind – or at night, animals calling in the zoo and people returning in the small hours to their parked cars when the clubs shut, and American presidents in their giant helicopters lumbering low over the crescent en route for their ambassadors’ garden in Regent’s Park.
My new book (My Town: An Artist’s Life in London) is about the changing views of the capital, but it’s also about what it is to work as an artist here. At the heart of this book is my studio, the tools of my work, and the joy of noticing, looking and drawing – the urge to single out from the complexity of the world around me something specific; and in starting to draw or paint it, coming to look at it more carefully, to better understand its appearance, shape, proportions, colour, structure and character. At a time when abstraction in art is all the rage, representation is less fashionable. But it’s too interesting to write off. Drawing and painting can be stimulating and puzzling. What is certain is that they both make one look harder, more intently and more analytically. So I’m still drawing, painting and noticing new things about this town, which I’ve known and loved almost all of my life.
In his poem ‘Afterwards’, Thomas Hardy ends the first stanza ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’. I’ve come to feel that noticing things, looking more intently at them and understanding them better, is key to what drawing means. It has always helped me feel more alive and made places more alive too.
David Gentleman is an English artist, illustrator, designer and author. His latest book is My Town: An Artist’s Life in London. Earlier books include David Gentleman’s Britain and related books on London, the British coastline, Paris, India and Italy. The platform-length mural on the underground at Charing Cross, enlarged from his wood engravings, is one of London’s most familiar station designs. He has designed British postage stamps, coins, symbols and anti-Iraq war placards and has held many exhibitions of watercolours, lithographs and screenprints. He was born in 1930 of artist parents, studied at the Royal College of Art and has lived in London ever since. He has also travelled widely, drawing and painting throughout Britain, Europe and India. His work is represented in Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum and private collections.
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