The rise of Milden artist David Porteous-Butler

PUBLISHED: 13:56 18 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:58 20 February 2013

Painter and former fashion designer David Porteous-Butler in his Milden studio

Photograph by ANDY ABBOTT

Painter and former fashion designer David Porteous-Butler in his Milden studio Photograph by ANDY ABBOTT

The rise, fall and rise again of David Porteous-Butler. The Milden-based artist has had quite a life, as he explains here . . .

The rise, fall and rise again of David Porteous-Butler. The Milden-based artist has had quite a life, as he explains here . . .

You are not originally from Suffolk are you?
I was born in London and spent the first 20 years of my life there. I was expelled from my nursery school for flooding the cloakroom. I still maintain I was creating a waterfall by blocking the drains of the little sinks so one flowed into another creating a series of pools. The flaw in my thinking was that the wastepipe on the last sink was insufficient to deal with the deluge. That was my first and probably last installation.
After spending a couple of years at a girls school, I went to Highgate. I must been a trial to my teachers since I grasped most principles easily but was bored by the repetitive nature of the scholastic regime.

Going back to your early days as a budding artist, you were inspired, and later helped by, the fine Welsh artist Sir Kyffin Williams. Tell us about that please.
Throughout my schooling from the earliest times I was considered to be the artist in the class. This went on until I was in the senior school at Highgate, when I met a quiet but exacting Welshman named Kyffin Williams, who was much later to receive a knighthood. He was the first art teacher apparently to ignore my presence. I persisted through to O level on the grounds that it was an easy touch. In the painting exam I remember Kyffin repeatedly looking at my work, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
I was aware that I had done well but was taken aback when Kyffin Williams declared in my school report: This boy must become a professional artist.
After that it was plain sailing. I abandoned any pretence of labouring for my science A levels and became the Highgate School artist whilst John Tavener and John Rutter were doing the same in the realms of music.
Kyffin trundled me down to the Royal College of Art with my extensive portfolio. Professor Carel Weight was impressed enough to give me a place. This was carte blanche for me to work at nothing except art. I reaped my just rewards when, after doing no proper schoolwork and achieving spectacularly mediocre A levels, I received a letter from the RCA stating that the experimental intake from sixth form had not been a success and was to be discontinued forthwith.
My world fell asunder.

Art was then overlooked as you joined your parents clothing company ...
The Slade was full by the time I received the dreadful news from the RCA. I spent a fruitless year at the Hornsey School of art with student colleagues throwing pomegranates. It occurred to me that I might join the family firm and paint in my spare time.
My parents had a small clothing accessory business in Kentish Town in which I had spent quite a lot of time working during school holidays. I had learnt quite a bit but, somewhat surprisingly, took the offer seriously enough to complete the apprenticeship. I even spent six months on the benches with the sewing machinists.
Little by little I became enthralled by the rag trade, the burgeoning prosperity with my influence and, not the least, an increasing wage packet.
I decided to teach myself ladies dress pattern cutting and, with a natural flair for design, started making cheap ladies house frocks. Financial success was heading our way and, since there was no chance of expanding in London, we moved the family company to Witham under the auspices of the GLC decentralisation and company expansion initiative. By this stage I had married Barbara who bore sons Peter and, shortly after moving house to Colchester, Dominic.
Our new PR suggested the company move into the realm of fashion and that I should design for the sixties revival in evening dress. The first design was a runaway success, both with the press and the stores. Within a few weeks we had sold thousands.

Tell us about years designing eveningwear/spectacular dresses. Surely a case of your natural feel for art and design being very well employed?
Before very long we had a wholesale showroom in Regent Street and were supplying ladies fashion to all the best retailers in the UK and started to export worldwide.
It was when I met my second wife Gail, a fashion model, that we moved to Leavenheath in Suffolk and started our own business designing and manufacturing exclusive evening wear still using the David Butler label. Our small workshop was in Alexandra Road, Sudbury but soon we took on a second unit next door until finally moving to a purpose-built freehold factory on the Chilton Industrial Estate. Our son, James was born in 1980.

And when you had a factory in Sudbury you met Princess Anne. You even had to find her one of the staff cups for some tea, I think?
Our exports flourished and so it was no surprise when we learned we were to be favoured with a visit to our factory by the Clothing Export Councils Patroness, HRH the Princess Royal. Unfortunately, the date chosen was that of the October 1987 hurricane, which put paid to a day when her highness was due to have lunch in our offices.
We were informed by the Palace that there would be a swift reschedule of the event. Little believing it would be so soon, the wonderful lady arrived on a fearfully cold day a month later. We had laid on a swish lunch for her and the other officials, providing orange juice for HRH as instructed by the Palace.
Do you think I could have a cup of tea? she asked. All hell broke loose with the staff trying to find a cup and saucer for her beverage. Finally an unchipped staff mug arrived and Anne cradled it in her lap, warming her hands throughout the meal. She proceeded to chide the Chairman of Babergh for the disgrace that working horses were not tax deductable.

The initial success of your clothing company then turned to disaster. What happened?
In the early 1990s recession struck when most of our retail customers either seriously reduced their orders or went under. We survived this trial but failed eventually as our competitors started sourcing their production offshore.
I spent almost two years at the turn of the millennium consulting for a Birmingham clothing manufacturer with similar problems all, predictably, to no avail. You would imagine that I would have learnt my lesson but, even at this stage, I frittered my hard earned pension on yet another disastrous flirtation with the fashion industry.
I had met and married my third wife, Rosy, during this time of upheaval and she has to this date added stability to an otherwise stormy passage. Rosy is a teacher and has sadly recently had to retire from her deputy headship at Colchester High School for Girls through ill health, but not before she had made a significant contribution.

Next step in your rollercoaster career was becoming a jobbing builder in Suffolk and north Essex. How did that come about?
I had played club cricket for many years and made a particular friend, one Andy Carr, known by his fellow teammates as Sir Andrew. He is a solo builder of high quality who had done a lot of work for us when we lived in Leavenheath. I often travelled to France with him when he used to help me with the millhouse that I had acquired in Burgundy during the late Eighties.
I went cap in hand to Andy and asked him if he would consider taking on a lad. I fully expected him to say no, as he usually worked on his own, but amazingly he offered me a daily rate job, apologizing for how little the remuneration was. I was delighted at his proposal and its opportunities, but I was a useless workmate for the first week. Rapidly my performance picked up and the few years spent in the trade with my friend were some of the best in my life. When I finally became a full time professional artist he said to me; If we had met earlier in life I would have liked to be in partnership with you.

In recent years, and much to your late mothers joy, you have returned to art and become very successful. What inspires you to paint? Tell us a little about your technique.
All the time I was building, I had vague thoughts on taking up painting again. The problem was where to do it. How this happened will always amaze me, but one evening I looked at Baberghs on-line industrial property register and there it was Artists studio to let in Hadleigh. It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon you could see the go faster streaks as I shot down to meet my new landlords to be.
I told my ageing, widowed mother what I had done and she beamed from ear, knowing that I had finally found my mtier. She promptly died, knowing that I would be fulfilled and no longer needed her care.
I started painting late in 2003 in this marvellous glorified extended shed that had been a artists studio for many years. I worked part-time as an artist/builder for six months and my first exhibition was with John Stevens Fine Art in Hadleigh, who much to his and my surprise sold my paintings well from the first go. Six months later I turned full-time artist and progress has been steady, culminating with exhibitions at the Enid Lawson gallery, London W1, the Wren Gallery in the Cotswolds and Mandells Gallery in Norwich, where I have a solo this month (October).

Which artists inspire you?
Both Kyffin Williams and Anthony Green were my early mentors and really set me the guidelines for my career. In 2004, when I told Sir Kyffin that I had started using a palette knife for painting, he looked horrified and stated; David, you realise that you will be an outcast from the art world from now on. I retorted; It doesnt matter, Kyffin. Im not an incast yet so Ive nothing to lose!
Since then I have developed my own style and it has lead me to aspire to the works of the great Impressionists. I just adore the works of Monet and Pissarro but have recently found a painting by Alfred Sisley Le Repos a masterpiece that to my eye is near perfection. On a different level, I admire any artist who really knows how to draw. The style is immaterial, its just the observational interpretation that matters. Rembrandt does this for me as do so many other painters from the Renaissance onwards. I was lucky enough to have had a little, but immensely valuable drawing instruction from Philip Ardizzone, son of author and illustrator Edward. If ever I feel I have produced a good drawing I thank him and bless the memory of short life.

Away from your hours in the studio do you have any hobbies? We hear you like cricket!
Music is my great love and I would happily swap my skills for that of a composer and musician. If ever Radio 3 disappears, I shall consider my time is up. We are so lucky to have instant music. I delight in the wonderful age into which I was born. I used to make radios, model boats, aircraft and even a tape recorder when I was a teenager.
My passion, apart from just living my life, is for cricket.
Test Match Special is the main rival for my radio listening ears. I have played and toured for many years and have broken fingers on five occasions, usually as wicket keeper. Now I am chairman of our local cricket club, Milden, which was reformed last year after a few years absence from the lovely game.

Where can people see your work?
My next solo show is at Mandells Gallery in Norwich from October 5-23. I exhibit continuously at the Buckenham Gallery in Southwold, the Art Garden Gallery at Yoxford and in specific shows at the Lime Tree Gallery in Long Melford and Bristol. My latest rising star is Gallery Violet based near Dedham. Its an unusual mix of presentations by artist and entrepreneuse, Anick Purmessur.

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