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David Gentleman: have brush, will travel

The Camden Town artist is perhaps best known as a chronicler of the capital, but a new exhibition shows another side – that of the traveller. Dan Carrier explores...

11 November, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Quayside with lighthouse Malaga, 1957

DAVID Gentleman’s art is as much a part of our city’s landscape as the black cab or the red bus: dubbed by fellow artist Quentin Blake as “London’s visual laureate”, his work has not only captured neighbourhoods over decades, but has graced them too.

Ranging from the murals at Charing Cross station to placards held by thousands protesting against the Iraq War, the Camden Town-based painter, illustrator, print maker and designer has a special relationship to the metropolis he calls home.

But a new exhibition reveals previously unseen works from his portfolio – and shows quite how far his sketch books, easels and materials have travelled.

The show, at the Patrick Bourne Gallery in Westminster, is called David Gentleman: Travels with The Artist, 1954 to 2004 – and features images from far-flung Pacific islands to the streets of Paris and Rome.

David went to the Design School at the Royal College of Art, where other celebrated artists such as Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden studied.

He has always used a range of materials, from watercolours, murals, print making and design. His work is in the Tate Britain, the British Museum and the V&A.

In the exhibition’s brochure, he reveals how travel offered new challenges and ideas for the artist. His journeys start in his early 20s as he was embarked on a career in the arts.

“Travelling has always been for me an eye-opener, a delightful experience and a spur to draw landscapes and people I wouldn’t be seeing again in a hurry,” he says. “My early trips to Brittany and Italy were vivid introductions to these extraordinary, picturesque regions and their traditions.

Nauru Phosphate freighter and palm trees, 1976

“Later travels sometimes came about through commissions: I originally went to India to illustrate The Jungle Book, and returned much later for a book of my own. Many Paris visits were for another book, while South Carolina was for a suite of lithographs. My furthest trip was to Nauru, a tiny coral island in the central Pacific, to design a set of stamps. But I went to Spain, Greece, Kenya and Zanzibar out of pure curiosity, and to Egypt and Morocco at the particular request of my children.”

He adds that the span of years since he created many of the pieces selected has allowed him to reassess his images as if they were done by another artist.

“It has also reminded me of the fascination and surprises of simply being abroad, with many memories of the scenes and places like those in Paris and Italy to which I often return,” he adds. “Some of those that I painted in the 1950s have become unrecognisable – Nauru is now an open-air prison. I was lucky to have seen them when they were strange and beautiful.”

And the different environments also meant a change in routine – another way of invigorating an artist’s eye.

“Travels offer an escape from routines and a chance to concentrate without distractions on fresh subjects,” he says.

India Station platform Aurangabad, 1993

Author Claire Tomalin, who has penned biographies of Charles Dickens and HG Wells, lives opposite David and is a personal friend. She notes the range of topics he has covered, transporting what he sees in front of him to sketch books and canvases.

“A Spanish bullring is shown empty and ominous through the curve of its boxes and the open entrance for the bull. A street in Marbella is an almost abstract pattern of walls and windows – overlooked by a balcony that seems to be waiting for you to step out on to it,” she writes. “We are taken into an Italian kitchen with its pots, ladles and stove all ready for the cook to start work. The glorious cragged ruins of Les Baux in Provence make another compelling abstract pattern.”

As well as village and cityscapes, his eye for landscape comes over too.

“David loves a cloud and takes special pleasure in his sombre colours – grey and shadowy skies, ruffled seas, dark hedges and alleys of trees. The sky over the vineyards of Burgundy is shown when grey and cloudy, as it is over Les Baux: there is no bland blue, little sunshine. An inviting small house in Brittany is also sunless, and so is Urbino with its nearby hills – how much more interesting are shadows and clouds, he shows us. Even in India and Italy he rarely shows an all-blue heaven – but what heavens he does show us, mottled, dusky, cloud-filled, all subtly and variously rendered. You know that he perceived the scene before his eyes more clearly and more intensely than you could ever have done, and that he has captured that particular moment to perfection,” she says.

David Gentleman

And he has revealed some of the background to his working practices, often forming an idea using a sketch book and charcoal sticks carried in a shoulder bag.

“For longer spells away from his studio he will set off with more elaborate equipment: watercolour paper in a portfolio, with a watercolour box, spare tubes of paint, sable brushes of different sizes in a tin tube, small sponges and a plastic bottle of water,” she adds.

David, the Londoner who has brought our streets alive, uses the same token to offer a view of elsewhere, taking the viewer with him on a global tour.

“David’s watercolours made during his travels abroad are an invitation to see more of the world and to appreciate its many varied, sometimes simple, sometimes complex and often extraordinary beauties still better,” writes Claire.

Travels With The Artist runs from November 16-24 at Gallery 11, 4 Cromwell Place, SW7 2JE. www.patrickbourne.com

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