Drawing the line | David Downton at Claridge’s


“I didn’t intend to do this. It pulled me into its world. I was 36 before I ever saw a fashion show.” David Downton is the most celebrated living fashion illustrator. His work appears regularly in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, and he creates imagery for Tiffany & Co, Bloomingdale’s, Chanel, Dior and the V&A Museum. He is artist-in-residence at Claridge’s, London

David Downton, Claridge's

David Downton in The Fumoir at Claridge’s, London

I draw people at Claridge’s who have a dialogue with the hotel – not just famous people, because every day someone famous is here. The subjects must have a story to tell, otherwise it would be no different from a New York deli having celebrity portraits on the wall. The process is complicated some times. They have to sit for me, or there’s no point; they have to want to do it. My subjects have included Diane von Fürstenberg, Alber Elbaz, Dita von Teese, Christian Louboutin, Paul Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker. These are people with schedules; they’re here in London working. You have to break into that schedule.

I draw beautiful people because I am in the business where they live. I still have to make it a beautiful drawing. I describe it as the varnished truth – I could draw ugly pictures of beautiful people, but others do that. I like to hit the high not the low. And each subject gives something different. Dita presents to the world the Dita that she has manufactured. She has perfected it. So I have to draw her that way. I can only draw the very polished surface. With Stella Tennant I just have to do a brow and nose and it’s done.

In addition to those portraits, I do other work at Claridge’s. I invite people to my table – table four – at The Fumoir bar, draw and interview them. They are people I like and admire from the fashion world: Stephen Jones, Laura Bailey, Erin O’Connor, Yasmin Le Bon, Antonio Berardi. These portraits all have a sense of their location, while the others are very black and white and linear. There is a tradition of black and white photography being exhibited at Claridge’s, and then there’s the black and white floor, and the deco tiling. I wanted to reflect those elements.

David Downton at Claridge's

Daphne Guinness, by David Downton

I think Milton Glaser said that getting a likeness is a knack. Some people have it and some don’t. I have it. I can’t do perspective though. At its best, my work looks like it just happened, that I was barely there. Empty space is integral to my imagery. The elimination is the breathing space that lets the light and air in, and it makes you work to join up the dots. Then there is the controlled spontaneity. I like the direct gestural mark.

I have had my own suite at Claridge’s for two years. I feel I am offstage, watching a magic trick. I have an easel in the basement but where I work depends on what I’m doing. When I drew Daphne Guinness we did it in the Ballroom. I don’t finish the drawings here. I create what I call “the conversation” here, then it is finished at my studio down in Brighton. The best thing I never did was learn how to use computers. I have an iPad and I did some drawing on it, and I liked it and put it to one side. I didn’t want to like. It was instant, and the image had light behind it and the colours were great. But it’s a gimmick. The first time you put the first stroke on the paper, it’s more exciting. And let’s be practical – there is a market in original work, and people think its magic. At college you were either a fine artist or commercial artist – there was suspicion on both sides back in the 1970s. Now, the most successful commercial artist in the world is a fine artist: Damian Hirst creates skateboards! I was of the last generation who didn’t have a computer at college. I had an idea that I didn’t want to be tethered to a box. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere or met anyone or had the extraordinary experiences I had.

David Downton at Claridge's

Alber Elbaz, by David Downton

I live in Sussex but I work here, and I am very conscious that it’s an amazing backdrop. Everybody loves it and it puts people are at ease. It doesn’t feel that you are going into an artist’s studio. I imagine working at The Ritz would be very different. It’s a special atmosphere at Claridge’s. I don’t know another hotel that you can walk into and just slip a gear in quite the way you do here. The longer I am here, the more I feel it. I don’t look for cracks in the façade at all. The place inspires love.

There is a real physical beauty to The Fumoir bar, with its original Lalique glass. It is an intimate and beautiful space. It is its own biosphere. Go in on a terrible day, and you don’t know it’s terrible outside, and on a beautiful day, you don’t either – it is midnight at noon. It has a confessional, secret, “other” atmosphere – it is unchanging and timeless. You feel that you are in a private club. The Fumoir is a state of mind. You could have a martini at 10am and not feel like an alcoholic. C