For fashion illustrator and artist-in-residence at Claridge’s, DAVID DOWNTON’s double life means weekends can be spent in an enviable fashion bubble or at home in picturesque East Sussex …
What is a weekend?” Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey famously asked. As an artist I know what she means. Weekends are where you find them and what you make of them. Mine often crop up mid-week. Early in my career I remember drawing Lady Amanda Harlech being interviewed in her suite in the Paris Ritz about her double vie as Karl Lagerfeld’s collaboratrice and at home in rural Shropshire. At the time I thought that was such a romantic notion. Ironically, you could say that I now also have a double life. I live in the country, in East Sussex, and my second home is Claridge’s, where I am artist-in-residence – this is my ‘gig of the century.’
Over the last six years I’ve stayed in almost every room in the hotel, from the penthouse to the room a previous manager’s dog lived in. As a result of this residency, which seems to be being copied everywhere, I’ve become a devotee of hotels. They are habit-forming and much as it is a cliché, I do feel I’ve become a part of the Claridge’s family. I certainly know how hard they work to make it appear effortless. I often imagine I am offstage watching a magic trick. I can see how its done, but it’s still magic.
If I am in London at the weekend, waking up in Mayfair is the greatest luxury. It is so silent and unhurried in the early mornings, the atmosphere is completely different. I indulge the fantasy of being a local. There’s even a corner shop should you need a pint of milk. My default meeting place for lunch is The Wolseley where I test the staff to their limits making last-minute reservations or turning up unannounced. They’ve never let me down. I often call in at Maison Assouline just along Piccadilly or the Royal Academy across the road – the current Klimt/Schiele exhibition is spectacular. On my way back to the hotel I go the antiquarian bookshop Peter Harrington on Dover Street, or swerve by Yohji Yamamoto where I have been shopping for years. I once gave them the brief that I wanted to look like “an artist doing well” – if I don’t, blame them. In the evenings, friends know where to find me, at table 4 in The Fumoir [bar]. I did the last London Fashion Week almost entirely from there, since everyone I knew dropped in on their way somewhere. I’m actually working on a series of podcasts called Midnight at Noon, inspired by these late-night conversations.
Because my work life is about going out, my home life is about staying in. I am surrounded by the South Downs and I live ten minutes from the sea. It was an amazing summer and since nothing happens in the fashion world in August, I hardly left home. Virginia Woolf lived nearby and the Bloomsbury group at Charleston over the hill. I like to think their creative ghosts are all around. Though I have a studio in my house, it’s been taken over by my family and I’ve moved mine into a former newspaper office in Brighton, which is great because it means I cannot work at home. Now I go out to work and I also leave it behind me. When I do have a weekend free, I have become very adept at doing nothing. I’m a lazy workaholic. I used to cook a lot, but I’m out of the habit so I am trying to get back to that. By cooking I mean following Nigel Slater to the letter. It’s really as much reading as cooking. I also binge on movies and box sets. I garden from the window.
Looking back, I was never a star pupil, never the one to watch. I’ve often felt that I have wandered into someone else’s life and career. I was always starstruck and have been able to meet many of my idols across the drawing board. Some, such as Erin O’Connor, Carmen dell’Orefice and Dita Von Teese, have become friends. I recently drew Anjelica Huston in Los Angeles for Vanity Fair. An epic moment for me.
A portrait sitting is rarely difficult. I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy sitting and talking and drawing. Then, when I get the work back to my studio, the frustrations begin. I am after a kind of controlled spontaneity, an illusion of effortlessness. Distilling the essence of a person into a few brush strokes, and floating them onto the page is the goal. I’m still perfecting it.
A couple of years ago, I drew designer Michael Kors for Claridge’s gallery, which resulted in a collaboration earlier this year. Michael was very clear what he wanted which made my part of the process a breeze. I drew a series of archetypal women and he applied the drawings to clothes and bags. I didn’t have a clue what he was doing until I attended his show in New York in February. Bella Hadid wore one of the dresses which caused a media storm. Seeing the drawings on a moving body was like watching an animation.
These days I travel quite extensively and I have developed a rather grandiose taste in hotels thanks to Claridge’s. In Paris, I love Hôtel Costes, which is always a scene, a Disneyland for adults. Then there’s the magical Gritti Palace in Venice, where I worked on a project this year, The Bowery in New York and Villa La Coste in Provence. I recently stayed at The Beverly Hills Hotel. I was given a tour and fell in love with Suite 117 where Frank Sinatra used to have the Rat Pack over after hours.
December is always busy. I’ll spend most of the run up to Christmas in London or at any rate on the train between London and Sussex and then be back home for the holidays. I don’t have any residual dread about Sunday evenings, I don’t live for the weekends. What used to keep me awake at night was my habit of not writing down appointments. Now I have an assistant, Jo, and my diary is her problem. I sleep like a top. www.daviddownton.com.
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