From Medical to Mystical: in conversation with artist David Lawrence

From Orpington to Bath and from scientific illustration to surreal homages to the English countryside, artist David Lawrence has made big strides in his artistic and personal journeys – Emma Clegg listens to his story.

“I always say that I have been untroubled by success,” David Lawrence tells me. I express scepticism, because this comes from an artist/illustrator who has been making a living through his artwork for almost 40 years. What he means, I establish, is that he is not represented by a Gallery as an Artist. Until now this has been at his own direction because his pathway required a focus on commercial commissions to earn a living. The result is a highly versatile artist, equally able to create pastiches of Old Masters, editorial cartoons, and adverts for airlines, as fulfil regular commissions from The Royal Mint, and – most enduringly and memorably in more recent years – offer his own style of surrealist painting, which is dramatically informed by a romantic sense of the English landscape.

David went to art college in the 1970s, doing a degree in scientific illustration (drawing images of scientific subjects to inform and communicate) at Middlesex Polytechnic. “I just wanted to learn some skills,”says David. “But when I finished art college I suddenly realised that if I did this all my life I’d never actually get to draw any goblins or fairies – all I’d be drawing was ducks and fleas, which involve lots of patience but not a lot of imagination.” While the shift from medical to mystical artwork was not immediate, it was obvious that the gnomes were in his blood and they would come out!

On graduating David went into commercial art and his work since then has had to adapt constantly to the times. “I’m very much a chameleon,” David explains. “In the days before Photoshop in the ’80s and ’90s, if you wanted to have a painting that looked old-fashioned – a pastiche painting in the style of Rembrandt, say – you had to get someone to paint it in that style. Or if you wanted something to look like a woodcut, you had to create one. So I developed a portfolio of old-style oil paintings and scraper-board drawings and I did editorial cartoons and adverts for beer and bread, and airlines and brochures for hemorrhoid cream.”

With the advent of fax machines in the late 1980s, David was able to move out of London to Taunton, but then in the mid-1990s came the widespread use of computers, which in David’s words, “rubbed out illustration for 10 years.” So he became a sculptor, creating a range of ‘Green Man’ sculptural face plaques – based on the mythological character and representing our deep connections with nature – which are still selling after 25 years. “The green men kept me alive and then I got in with a company called Harmony Kingdom who made little giftware items, which kept me going until about 15 years ago.”

David found his way back to illustration and then he met his second wife, Karen: a reunion which he describes as “one of the great romantic stories”, because they had first known each other when they were three, and then as youngsters “in Orpington, a dull suburb of London”, and had lost touch for 35 years. His marriage coincided with a move to Bath, and allowed David a significant new focus on his personal artwork, a dramatic transition: “When I started doing my own work, initially it was wilfully weird because all my life I’d been told what to do by an art director …and now I was free at last!” he says.

So what inspires David and how does he direct his practice? Artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) has been a big influence, he explains; Palmer lived in Shoreham, not far from where David grew up, and his drawings and paintings of Kent – in turn influenced by William Blake – were a visionary depiction of rural England. “I love the way Palmer played with shape, and his romantic, dream-like view of the world.”

You can certainly trace the mystical, symbolic and imaginative, as well as the bountiful power of the English countryside, in David’s own work.

“People always ask me where my ideas come from. I think it’s the subconscious, really, that plays a large part, because most of my ideas come to mind fully formed. In my head I file copious images drawn from stained-glass windows, medieval illuminations, folklore, 1970s TV and Prog Rock”, says David.

David’s media is mixed, nowadays combining acrylics, oils and oil pastels, which give a grainy texture. “Every painting has a different evolution – they can look quite different, but there is a coherence: an art nouveau love of rich colours, a strong sinuous line and well-observed anatomical elements. This goes back to my art school training, where we spent much time drawing body parts and going to hospital museums.”

Nowadays David’s forays into commercial projects are rarer. He has, however, continued an association with the Royal Mint for the past 10 years. With each project, a brief is received by three artists, who submit a minimum of two designs to a panel of experts, who choose a winner. David produced a series of commemorative World War One coins from 2014–18, the new £1 coin in 2016 (developed from the winning drawing by 14-year-old David Pearce following a national competition), the Britannia Sovereign in 2018 and 2019 and this year’s commemorative Year of the Tiger Coin.

David regularly exhibits with the monthly Bath Contemporary Artists’ Fair in Green Park, which starts again on Sunday 10 April. Come and see if you can spot any goblins…

Bath Contemporary Artists’ Fair, Green Park 10 April, 10am–5pm;;