Dave designed and painted a great many murals in North London between 1977 and 1990.
His father was a librarian and his mother an artist, the family had moved from Walsall to Hove when he was seven and here he was raised. “All those years my main preoccupation was with the countryside,” he says, “and between eleven and eighteen there was nowhere in Sussex I hadn’t been.” Seven years at the grammar school “were the worst of my life, I was like a prisoner in jail”, the only subject he was good at was art.
Interest in the countryside and giving up drawing.
Aged eighteen with a short haircut and conservative views he went up to Reading University to study politics, where he joined a campaigning Trotskyist organisation and for 3 years spent more time very active doing the politics rather than studying the syllabus, but “between the formal and the informal I came away with a very clear, strong foundation in Marxism”, and did not cut his hair for ten years.
Reading University course
After university he moved to London and worked in offices and builders yards whilst living in squats in Camden and Islington. Then in 1977 knowing he had a facility and a liking for art he applied to St. Martin’s School. “ It was,” he says, “ a complete dump, I came out with less knowledge, confidence and creativity than I had when I went in, three years wasted.” Except for the ‘big positive’, which was meeting three fellow students, sculptors Karen Gregory and Kim Bennett, refugees from painting, and Chris Reeves the film-maker.
Saint Martin’s School of Art, friends and murals
In 1979, the year he left art school Dave had decided that he would paint murals.
“It was a form of public art on an architectural scale on which you could make large clear statements and it was non commercial, didn’t create commodities and was of service to people and have abroad appeal – an opportunity to promote socialist ideas. Something I could do with the skills I had.”
He began working in Lambeth and Islington before he had left the art school. “I cut my teeth on youth centres and adventure playgrounds, where things are constantly being painted, damaged, modified, rebuilt, and where you could play, experiment with ideas, get familiar working on a large scale, with perspective and work out how to simplify, how much detail you could put in; I think people generally liked them. I remember doing two or three jungle murals – lots of green and colourful birds, animals peering out through Rousseauesque leaves – they went down well.” Work continued through the year also in schools and community centres with tenants associations, often he worked in a team of himself Karen, Kim and Denis Holmes.
Saint Martins School of Art and early murals
In 1980 there was a commission for a project at Lisson Green Childrens Centre, the first of three from the Playground Association. They were given free paint: Blundells Permaglase, an exterior emulsion which offered a strong, wide range of hues – “good as any artists’ colours” enabling us to paint a bright naturalism. It was paint that would last for a few years, but better for their work than Keim Silicate which though lasting forever, offered only a dull earth range.
“We did some good stuff,” said Dave. “we would start around 10 and go on until the light went, all through the year full time, our gloves were more paint than wool when it was very cold. Our standard rate of pay was £5 per hour which we could afford, because living in squats or semi-squats our living costs were very low; good lives on very little money. One day a painter working nearby got extremely angry with me – said I was a scab – undercutting the rate for painters – and he was right, we were really foolish, should have negotiated £10 an hour at least and would have got it.”
mural teams and later murals
His first “real job” came in 1981 when he was employed to lead a team to paint murals by Community Service Volunteers Islington.
“Mostly we worked with tenants associations, schools and youth groups. In the second year we split into two teams and sometimes there would be subsets of teams as well. A great number of good murals were painted and some extraordinary pieces, like one that was painted for Charles Lamb school. But once or twice – when there was no clear direction – a dreadful mishmash of styles and contradictory elements.
We were supported by having exceptional people all around, energising – community workers, youth workers, kids doing things; volunteers were keen, had a great sense of humour. One in particular, Diane Leary – pure gold, came through a job creation scheme – aged 16 – a real find, became a full-time artworker in her own right! The core of the group unit was the four of us, and we didn’t regard ourselves as having a social work or a teacherly role, though sometimes we did of course. We saw ourselves as independent craftsmen brought in to do a particular job for the benefit of the community and with community input, though occasionally we would do tangential stuff as well; like run play-schemes, and small projects for children “.
murals as a social activity
” It was a very good two and a half years, we were able to work in a thorough going, consistent way with a regular financial input. It did a great deal for my confidence and standard of work. Our paintings were inputting a missing element into the built environment which was otherwise wholly absent – not that there wasn’t a kaleidoscope of wholly disposable marketing and selling, posters, bill-boards, neon, which I wholly despise. So we were able to say, ‘Look you can have a really good, complex, multi-layered imagery at architectural scale which have harmonious meanings for the community that tie in with their concerns rather that browbeat them into buying.
There were endless streams of people chatting away with us, I loved all that, one of the huge pleasures to know the people in the area, children, shoppers – sometimes incorporate them into the mural. There is nothing lonely or boring painting murals outside, it is a very social thing to do, and to have your audience around you.”
The three murals of which he is most proud each took about three years to do and are his last: ‘ Tolpuddle Martyr’s’ completed in 1985, ‘ Wild Islington ‘ by 1987, and the ‘United Nations Year For Peace’ (UN) mosaic in 1990. ‘ The Martyrs’, on the side of a pub, had a peculiar inverted T shape so the drawing kept needing readjustment. ‘Wild Islington’ was painted on a grand three story gable end with a buttress down the middle, the image an urban wasteland full of grasses and plants, with infinite particularity of colours and details seen from a worm’s eye view. “For both murals,” he says, “the designs I had were entirely provisional, never more than working drawings, altogether modified and added to in the finished paintings; vast improvements on the original designs.”
The UN mosaics were made for the Cromer Day Centre, whose core users – the homeless and those with mental heath issues problems, were joined by another group of elderly people who were full of vitality and had social networks, and the combination worked brilliantly. It was a harmonious confabulation of people of every race and ability.
“We had all sorts of fun, singing, dancing, festivals all sorts of extraordinary activities.”
The project took over derelict land by the church and turned it into a garden, and with all the members a decorative mosaic of four window sized mosaic panels was designed and made.
“These murals,” he says, “felt much harder to do, a grind. My standard had risen so highly, to such a level, that I felt all the pleasure was draining out of the picture making, a bricklayer’s slog. The lightness and play had gone. In the end I became very fed up, doing three murals a year, making a bunch of friends, meeting people, getting glimpses of their lives and at the end of it having to pack up, go away and next year do it all over again with someone else “.
He had painted at least twenty-five murals by himself or with a team. “I began to yearn for the sort of work where I had colleagues on an open ended permanent basis, who were there year in year out, wanted no longer this nomadic work, wanted something with more calmness and solidity of relationship.” At this time when Thatcher was in the middle of her poisonous career, funding was draining from community arts and transferring to projects more in tune with her ideology.
Asked about his influences as a muralist, Dave said he admires the Mexican muralists for their message of liberation – a wave of confidence and power, and the Irish Republican muralists – a big source of encouragement to their community; and similarly in the USA – murals of huge energy, and he loves the Ravenna mosaics. In the world of art he most admires the artists who faithfully recorded nature: John Sell Cotman, Arthur Rackham, George Clausen and Victorian illustrators but above all Charles Tunnycliffe, “a complete source of delight, for his joy of being in nature, for seeing everything, the grand view and the frost on a leaf,” and loves the work of animators, like Studio Ghibli, for their great skill in representing the world.
For himself, he says, “I’d never attached much value to creativity, which is only a minor element set against observation, proportions, and other skills. I wanted to represent the real world I saw out there, especially the natural world, plants and creatures, the countryside and sky and water. What gave me most pleasure was accurately representing those things.”
Of today’s murals he says, “They produce very proficient, colourful, multilayered and zappy images which seem to have a lot to do with computer games, sci-fi and ultra-urban silliness which is difficult to take seriously.” In art, he regards the modern movement and its ideology as, “a pile of gobshite piled on us by capitalism.”
He would like to see a rebirth of socialist public art “based on creating a better world, living within our means in the matrix of nature” but says “it will take some long time for us to pick up and create socialist societies and eliminate the great imperialisms, by which time there will be so little left of the natural world it will be a desert.”
In the 1990s Dave returned to live in Sussex where he worked as a gardener, and where he has become a great environmental campaigner, focusing particularly on the countryside and nature.