David Dent - Art & fashion at the races warwickshire life
PUBLISHED: 11:17 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:43 20 February 2013
As horse racing fans get ready for this month's Cheltenham Festival we meet equestrian artist David Dent who has recently turned his attention to racing couture – with fabulous results.
Artist David Dents client list reads like a Whos Who of the racing world and includes names like Paul Nicholls, champion National Hunt trainer, Warwickshire-based trainer Robin Dickin, Sir Mark Prescott, Mick Fitzgerald and even members of the Saudi Royal family.
David, 50, who was born in Solihull, discovered an early fascination for horses when he was taken racing at Warwick and Stratford as a child. For 25 years he has painted scenes from the racing world a subject he clearly adores.
Jockeys are the last gladiators, and racing is not sanitised like so many other sports. Its real, its earthy, and when you stand by a fence, hear the shouts of the jockeys, feel the exertion of the horse and see the brush go flying its incredible theres no other sport like it. Theres something really unique about it because of the way man and horse bond and entrust each other with their lives, that to me makes it heroic on behalf of both the horse and the jockey, he tells me.
As well as the actual spectacle its a cultural experience too. For newcomers to the sport especially, it something quite different to anything they see anywhere else, people like the colour, the glamour, the fact that people speak another language in the betting ring. There are real characters and a sense of intrigue, people like that its why so many all around the globe read Dick Francis novels. Thats what brings spectators back time and time again.
As a child David moved with his family to South Wales where his father Tony, a skilled cabinet maker who had made seats for Mosquito aeroplanes during the war, had a job with ICI.
In the factory he was responsible for changing the reels of fibres. The paper that pulled the fibres through had to be changed before it ran out. He would come home with these massive reams of paper, cover a huge table and throw down a load of coloured pencils, paints, felt pens . . . and say draw. Whereas most kids are confined to colouring books and school exercise books, if you have a huge area to draw on youre much less inhibited I guess, and we had all that freedom of expression, being inspired by horses they were a natural subject for us to paint.
Summer and Christmas holidays, were spent with grandparents in Shirley, who were keen on speedway and it was watching the great Ole Olsen in action at Coventry Bees speedway that inspired David, and his brother Adrian (also an equestrian artist), to first start painting for cash.
Back home in South Wales the brothers started painting and selling programmes at their local speedway track in Newport. One of their hallmarks was capturing the characters of the riders, rather than focusing solely on the bike.
Then when we started going to the races more and more we noticed the differing styles of the jockeys as well, says David. I think that was important in making the work popular early on, jockeys like Peter Scudamore, Brendan Powell and Jimmy Frost bought my work because I was capturing their individual style of riding and not just putting a generic jockey on top.
David started out as an art teacher and had his first public exhibition at Chepstow Racecourse in 1984. Within the year he had begun to attract custom from leading figures in the sport including Paul Nicholls, then still a jockey, who bought a painting of the Welsh National.
Over the years the popularity of his work has continued to grow and his style has continually evolved.
As an artist I want to get better and better and keep doing something different. I think that if I ever painted the perfect picture Id think: Thats it Ive done it and pack up. Its that determination to get better and capture something else that keeps you going.
That desire to do something different sees my style change all the time. Adrian tends to stick to more to the classic style of building up with glazes, but Im much more experimental and change my style a lot, often people cant believe all my pictures have been done by the same artist.
I like going to St Moritz and seeing the racing on the ice, you get the light reflected back from the snow highlighting underneath the horses and the jockeys silks so you get a double glow which is fantastic to paint. Then you get such animation when you get jockeys jumping the huge fences in the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic [the Czech equivalent of our Grand National], thats quite dramatic and an inspiration. If racing ever bored me Id stop but it doesnt theres always a hero, theres always an exciting race and the inspiration is always there.
The people and fashions encountered at the races have been another fertile source of ideas.
Ive always liked Film Noir, the guys in their great coats and trilbies, the glamorous women, and when I went to the races I saw people like that in real life. Women in incredible clothes, men dressed like back in the 40s and 50s that tradition of elegance adds to the feel of racing. Racing is aspirational and dressing up should be part of it, so I want to paint it.
I dont think clothing should be something we just put on for its function, we should think of it more like in primitive cultures where it has meaning and beauty. I think weve lost that in the way we dress grey suits in banks, track suits and trainers for casual wear I think thats sad, we lose part of our cultural expression when we dont dress up.
As I began looking at how clothes were cut and put together I found myself thinking: wouldnt that be nicer if it was a little bit tighter cut into the waist, a little bit longer at the back. . . that sort of thing. I was getting the inspiration from clothes I was seeing at the races, but thought they could be a little bit more feminine, a little bit more glamorous.
The result of these thoughts is PonyGurl Couture, a collection of tweed and velvet jackets and skirts.
Its tradition with a bit of edge that Im interested in doing the clothes are sexy, glamorous, but theyve got their roots in tradition.
David shows a small selection of garments alongside his paintings and will be at the Cheltenham Festival this month. Only a few garments are sold off the peg.
We do them made to measure for each customer, which means we can fit them perfectly, ensuring theyre comfortable and look like theyre sprayed on they look bespoke because they genuinely are.
I enjoy the connection with the client when you design something specifically for them, its very personal. I get pride when I see someone wearing something Ive created at the races and hear people coming up and saying: Wow! Where did you get that? Each creation is different, I dont do two the same, I use a different tweed, a different velvet, fur or leather trim. I have four or five basic styles in the jackets but every one made is slightly different, and I have three different lengths and three different styles in skirts.
Strongly opposed to the culture of cheap, disposable fashion that has dominated over recent years, Davids philosophy echoes Yves St Laurents proclamation that Fashions fade, style is eternal.
I think that if its not dictated by the fickle corporate fashion market that its something thats going to last, I cant see that the jackets I produce are going to go out of fashion even in 20 years time, and certainly theyre made to last not to go in the landfill.
I think a lot of damage is done to the environment through mass production of clothing in our disposable culture. Were supposed to be thinking about sustainability for the future and things like tweed and fur are massively important for the future of how we do things because things like cotton and synthetic clothing are extremely bad for the environment.
PonyGurl Couture tweeds are sourced from small-scale producers in the Hebrides and Shetlands, such as Island of Lewis-based Anna Murray.
The people producing those tweeds are not doing it because of some corporate idea, theyre doing it because they have a palette in front of them, the heather, the moorland, the sea, the sky and thats where the colours in the tweed come from.
I can identify with that as an artist, to use something beautiful, something sustainable, something that keeps the environment protected. Sheep grazing on the moor is great for the other animals that share that habitat; producing wool thats woven into fabric and finally ends up in a handmade garment thats not been mass produced is something thats close to my heart.
They seem to appeal to all ages too which is interesting Ive sold items to girls in their late teens through to women in their 60s. I think if something is feminine and elegant anyone can wear it regardless of age.
Paintings, prints and fashion can be seen at Dents Originals in the Tented Village at the Cheltenham Festival or in the Raceday Gallery at Chepstow Racecourse.