PUBLISHED: 14:10 17 November 2014 | UPDATED: 14:14 17 November 2014
Lucy Etherington meets the artist, David Gentleman, at his Suffolk home, the subject of his most recent – and personal – work to date
It’s a glorious late summer morning in a vibrant cottage garden in the Suffolk village of Huntingfield, near Halesworth, and I feel like I’ve fallen into the pages of a picture book.
That’s because everywhere I look, illustrations and watercolours from David Gentleman’s latest work, In the Country, spring to life. The book is a sumptuous collection of paintings and drawings he has made of his country retreat over 35 years.
“It’s my most personal work,” says Gentleman, who, like his drawing, has a kind of lanky, twinkly and quintessentially English charm. “I didn’t want it to be another Suffolk guide, so I focused on what I knew, which is my house and garden, the little stream at the back, the landscape and skies, the village and local town, then the excursions we made with the children and grandchildren to the sea.”
Written chapters accompany the illustrations and watercolours, beguiling observations, stories, snapshots, history, meditations on the passing of time, whether the growth and decay of Elder trees, a self-seeding lawn that is like “watching someone grow up,” or delighting in the play of his grandchildren in their “headlong rush through what seems to me their brief childhood”.
There’s a sense that by capturing these moments he is slowing time, not just for himself but for the reader.
“It’s about noticing,” David says, simply. “With a camera, you snap the picture and move on. The interesting thing about drawing is that you’re looking at things very intently. You see the light change, birds come and go, the lines on the fields, the shapes of trees – it’s fascinating. My wife, Sue, is always saying that I’m oblivious to things she’s done around the house, but when I’m drawing, I notice everything.”
Although he lives most of the year in London’s Camden, Gentleman’s Suffolk connections run deep – a boyhood spent on the Suffolk/Essex borders with his artist parents, whose paintings hang on the walls of the house, along with a print by his tutor, John Nash, memories of cycling through the Stour valley with his father. He returned to Manningtree after graduating from the Royal College of Art and produced lithographs of Orford, Snape and Saxted windmill.
After that his career seemed to take wildly different parallel paths – one producing illustrations and prints for books, as well as National Trust and transport posters, the other as a designer of postage stamps, commissioned by then postmaster general the late Tony Benn, and causing quite a stir when he turned the Queen’s Head into a Pop Art silhouette.
“I enjoyed the fame for a bit,” he says, “but then I felt I was becoming lumbered with this identity as the Stamp Guy.”
In the seventies he created the mural that still dominates the platform at Charing Cross tube station. In 2003 he designed the striking NO and BLIAR placards for the Stop the War march, as well as a blood spattered installation in Parliament Square, and a satiric book that won critical acclaim, if few readers, A Special Relationship.
Does he find it difficult to switch between such radically different styles?
“No harder than I find it switching from city to country,” he tells me, admiring a rather large hornet exploring an apple on the bench between us. “In fact I find it easy. I suppose I do it deliberately because I don’t like being labelled.”
A commission to illustrate a book by East Anglia’s oral historian, George Ewart Evans, led Gentleman back to Suffolk in his mid-thirties, when he ended up falling in love with and marrying George’s daughter Susan.
While David has his photo taken, Susan gives me a lively tour of the house. Again it is like entering a picture book, utterly enchanting, a mish-mash of eras dating back to the early 16th century.
Apart from a new bath and joining two end cottages to make one slightly bigger house, it has barely been updated since they first bought it. The iron beds, 1930s floral wallpaper and mottled bare plaster walls are the genuine article, not some Cath Kidston faux-vintage make-over. There’s no central heating in case it damages the wattle-and-daub walls.
Indeed, the house is treated like a living thing, a tree rather than property, with its own eco-system. Newts have free reign of the cellar, jackdaws nest in the chimney, spiders webs are left alone (“they deal with the beetles”) and one is even framed over the fireplace. The upstairs is a warren of bedrooms with sagging ceilings and stairs so steep you need a rope to steady your way down.
Back on the garden bench, I wonder if, after Grayson Perry’s championing of representational art in his Reith Lectures, Gentleman’s drawing style might not enjoy a bit of a renaissance. Gentleman is too much of his name to say so, but it’s clear he doesn’t care one way or the other.
“Drawing and painting in representation form has been at a low ebb for some time,” he says. “The theory is that the invention of photography meant that artists were absolved from the task of depicting anything. But I don’t feel that. It has worked for artists in the past and it’s worked for me. I think it’s better to slog on with what you know rather than bend to the whims of the art world.”
At a sprightly 84, still drawing in windlashed fields, sketchbook in the crook of his arm, he shows no sign of flagging.
“I had a very good tutor at the Royal Academy, Edward Bawden,” he says. “Legend has it that he was cutting lino the day he died.”
He leans back on the bench and smiles at the thought, while the sun-drenched garden buzzes around us.
In the Country is published by Full Circle Editions