Monday, September 14, 2015

Portraits of Beauty: The Art of David Downton

This week on THE STYLE SALONISTE I’m celebrating the ravishing new book of fashion portraiture, ‘David Downton Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women’ (Laurence King).

David Downton is a dear friend, and I’m happy to present beautiful and inspiring images, drawn from life, from his fabulous new book. (Other portraits may be seen in the September style issue of Vanity Fair).

Each portrait in the book—Joan Collins, Denise Hale, Linda Evangelista, Daphne Guinness—was the magical result of a private sitting (Hotel de Crillon, Claridge’s, Hotel George V, Crosby Street Hotel, the Place Vendome). Beautiful women in luxurious settings. It is a wonderfully engaging book. I told David I envied him and his glamorous career. He responded, “Yes, I envy myself.” Come and see why he is being hailed by Vanity Fair as the greatest fashion illustrator of the 21st Century.

I have written a very special exclusive interview with David Downton. He’s eloquent about his work. Our chat started over breakfast at Claridge’s in London in June, and continued as David traveled to New York and onward to Perth, Australia, where he attracts passionate hordes of fashion and art lovers for his lectures and booksignings. Now he’s back in London, or is it New York or Paris?

David’s new book (published by Laurence King Publishing, London), features a witty and frisky foreword by Christian Lacroix (vivid calligraphy) and an afterword by Dita von Teese (who graces the cover) and fantastic photography by Tim Petersen and Jacobus Snyman.

Come with me to be inspired by David’s sensual and delicious portraits – the book includes Dita, Joan, Carmen, Denise, Iman, Carolina, Marisa, Marie, Jerry, Stella, Coco, Donatella, Cate, Ines, Catherine, Paloma, Rossy, Jade, Sarah Jessica, Coco, Anna, and Jasmine and Daphne, and I’ve selected a special collection.

I was the first person … after David…to see the first bound copy of his new book. David had invited me to breakfast with him at Claridge’s in London last June. I arrived at the hotel restaurant, bustling with breakfasting celebs, plus Alexandra Shulman, the editor in chief of British Vogue.

David and I quickly ordered coffee and toast, and then he handed me the hot-off-the-press hardbound copy of his book. This first bound copy had arrived in his hands just moments before.

Talk about hot type! He was vibrating he was so happy. I started reading, and turning the pages. So beautiful, 175 color illustrations.

It’s a page-turner, and each portrait is intense, alive, and an emotional engagement.

“All hail, Mrs. Hale, San Francisco’s reigning social empress.”—David Downton

Denise Hale is one of David’s subjects in the book. He has drawn her multiple times and each sketch captures a look, an intensity, a mysterious quality, an elegance.

In Conversation with David Downton

Come with me for an exclusive new chat with the artist

DDS: David, congratulations on your wonderful new book. It is so delicious. The drawings have spirit and wit and dash. The production is fantastic with beautiful subtle colors and lines. Your drawings and sketches and watercolors and portraits come to life. And there are vivid photographs portraying up-close your sittings, your adventures, your work.
DD: Thank you..... it nearly killed me! The sittings took place over a 17 year period and the book itself took two years to put together. The publishers, Laurence King, pretty much left the designer (the wonderful Karen Morgan) and me to our own devices. But they were there when I needed them and they were determined to produce a beautiful book. I love them for that. And they looked the other way as deadlines whistled past. I am proud of the book. It's not perfect, but it's the best that time and my talent would allow. The great thing with drawing is, you can always get better.

DDS: From Stella Tennant and Daphne Guinness to Denise Hale — I’m especially impressed with the range of women — from Carmen to Iman, and from Joan Collins to Kristen Scott Thomas and Erin O'Connor and Anouk Aimée. 
DD: In a way my subjects choose themselves. By that I mean that when I see someone, I know straight away if they will 'make' a drawing. It's partly the way they look of course, but it's also about style, individuality, humor, personality. The traits we relish in life are also what we recognize on paper. The women in the book all represent archetypes in one way or another and yet they are completely themselves.

DDS: You've also written vivid and vibrant and witty text. You said it was like blood-letting.
DD: It was. I draw quickly and write slowly. The idea of writing inhibits me and I have to resist the voice in my head that tells me that I am 'not a writer'. I search for words in the same way I search for the perfect, defining line. It's elusive, but you know it's there. Whoever said great writing was just a matter of getting 'the right words in the right order' was spot on. They neglected to mention how frustrating it can be. My task was to give a flavor of the sittings without betraying confidences. The politician's art....

DDS: It's a page-turner. How many women are presented in your new book? You could not be accused of focusing on one type, or only English roses. Nor solely models or fashion plates.
DD: I am not sure I've counted them. The only 'type' I focus on is unforgettable. They include European movie goddesses Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling and Anouk Aimee: models ranging from Karlie Kloss to Iman to Carmen and style icons Carolina Herrera, Jacqueline de Ribes and of course, our great friend, Denise Hale. Every sitting has been an adventure and a masterclass in image making.

DDS: You are professionally based in London, and you're the Artist in Residence at Claridge's in Mayfair. When I said 'all the world is envious of this role, to inhabit Claridge's and portray beautiful women for the hotel's walls'. David, you responded, "I'm envious of myself'. What is a typical 'week in the life' at Claridge's?
DD: Well Claridge's is my office, my poste restante and my 'home' in London. I live an hour away, between the Downs and the sea in Sussex (where the Bloomsbury set played out their creative and complicated lives). Who wouldn't envy me? Every hour at Claridge's is the Golden Hour. 'Real' life is somewhere outside the revolving door. I don't have a typical day there. I might be drawing, or having meetings (suddenly everyone wants to come to me) or cooking up a new idea or project with the hotel. Thomas Kochs (the GM) is about to host my book launch there with Joan Collins, so that's currently the focus of attention. 

DDS: It's important to note that in the September Style issue, 2015, of Vanity Fair.... you have, what is it, a million pages of illustrations of beautiful women? Beautiful, just luscious. Your drawings inhabit the magazine and make the issue a collector's item. Are you still floating on air?
DD: I am rather. Working with Vanity Fair has been the best experience over the last 3 years. It's the Rolls Royce of magazines. The photography, writing and design are brilliant and it juggles high and low culture, politics, the arts and celebrity with a mixacologist's flair. A cocktail with a kick

DDS: You recently traveled to Perth, Australia, for a personal appearance and book signing. You'll arrive in Los Angeles any moment to complete and create private portraits. And you'll be in San Francisco and New Yorkin October for parties celebrating your new book. This is intense.
DD: Yes, I seem to be on tour. I lost the summer due to deadlines and preparing for the book to come out, so the autumn will be my working summer. It's fun and, as they say, it has to be done. Truthfully, I am grateful there has been so much interest. I am doing interviews in Australia, Spain, Mexico, and Ukraine.... I am getting to be a good storyteller provided the subject is me! On that topic, I’m the expert.

DDS: And, not to mention that you have many clients, such as Oscar de la Renta. Dior. 
DD: it's a balancing act, but as with so many things, control is an illusion. I have recently worked with Lancôme, Carolina Herrera and Macy's, and at the same time with the wonderfully subversive magazine CANDY (published by the Titan of Transgression, Luis Venegas. You need to know him). I have illustrated an album cover for Bryan Ferry, a poster for a French one-man show and a book cover in Italy...

DDS: And you attend many of the Paris couture and ready-to-wear fashion shows. Your impromptu sketches from the runway are a dream.
DD: I am skipping this autumn's round in favor of the book, but will be back on my gilt chair in Paris for couture in January, recording the passing parade. Actually, 2016 will mark 20 years since I first went to couture. So, my next big project is an exhibition around that.

DDS: David, your book is wonderful. The women you portray gaze out at the reader. It's a powerful experience. You dare to take these dreams of beauty and give them life and charisma, often with just a few strokes, a splash of color. The reality is that some take an hour—and others days and weeks.
DD: Thank you. Every positive comment I receive I share unequivocally with the women who sat across the drawing board from me: they ARE the book.

DDS: Thank you so much, David. I wish you great success and fun on the book trail, and the pleasure of meeting your readers. I'll see you in San Francisco in October.

Dita von Teese is one of David’s favorite portrait subjects—and one of his closest friends.

Dita wrote,” David’s talent is the reason that he can create engaging portraits, but I also know that his English charm and playful wit, the unaffected yet certainly not indifferent manner are what create the special kind of energy and space. That is the spark that creates the artist-muse relationship.”

Is David Downton a portraitist or an artist or a fashion illustrator or a portrait painter? Here’s his response:
“I try not to label myself. The great fashion artists I revere, such as Eric and Bouché, Antonio Lopez, and Gruau and Vertes, were multi-skilled and worked across a range of disciplines. They painted murals; they designed for the theatre, opera and ballet. They made portraits, posters and prints. They wrote and illustrated books. They did a lot of ads and commercial art. Had they been alive today they would probably direct videos and been pioneers in the digital revolution. I don’t think the idea of a label occurred to them.” –From his new book

Classic David Downton

Here’s one of my favorite comments from David Downton, from my previous blog post, 2013:

DDS: You also accept special commissions for portraits, like the ones recently of Valentino for a publication, and the notable new private one of Denise Hale. Tell us how you created the first brilliant and vivacious illustration of my dear friend Denise

We met a couple of years ago in San Francisco. Denise enjoyed a speech I made (I was given an honorary doctorate by the Academy of Art University) and made a point of telling me so. We talked vaguely about doing a drawing. Then, last summer, when she was briefly in London on her way to Dubrovnik, we had lunch. I pounced, “why not now?” We did a sitting for an hour or so at Claridge’s. It's the black and white one. Denise is a great subject because she has such spirit and because she’s glamorous in a way that people have forgotten how to be. If my apartment building were on fire I would call Denise. She would know the architect and the quickest way out. If I were lost at sea, she’d get hold of her nearest friend with a yacht. It’s not often you meet people like that! 

‘David Downton Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women’ with a foreword by Christian Lacroix and Afterword by Dita Von Teese. Published by Laurence King Publishing, London.

All illustrations are copyright David Downton, and published here with express permission.

Photography by Tim Petersen and Jacobus Snyman.

To contact David Downton for a private portrait commission: 

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