You might not know the name but you’ll recognise the images: David Downton is the artist behind some of the best-loved contemporary fashion illustrations, working with everyone from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Marks and Spencer and, currently, Claridge’s, where he’s the artist in residence. Featuring more than 170 illustrations to pore over, as well as tributes from Christian Lacroix and Dita Von Teese, David Downton: Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women is a celebration of his portraits and a treat for the eyes; it’s hard to resist the urge to cut out and frame most of the pages.
Following a glowing foreword by Christian Lacroix, the book begins with The Varnished Truth: A Conversation with David Downton, which charts his career, right from childhood inspiration found in film posters and, unexpectedly, Disney animation. Yet for someone whose work is now so popular, it took some time for Downton to make it big. Rejected by the Central School in London, he studied graphics and illustration at Wolverhampton, but struggled with the course: ‘I left with a not very good degree and without much enthusiasm.’ During a spell of office work he took the plunge and showed his portfolio to a teen magazine based next door, which led to a range of commissions for different publishers, though fashion was only one part of his remit.
He first got up close to couture in 1996 with a commission that changed everything – he says it was ‘like entering Narnia… I was completely transfixed’ – during a trip to Paris. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that he began producing celebrity portraits during lengthy sittings with famous faces. The first to pose was Marie Helvin, and she enlisted a few celebrity friends to do the same. Today the artist has his pick of subjects, and several of today’s top models appear in the book, including Joan Smalls and Karlie Kloss dressed in flowing inky black gowns accessorised with diamonds. Refreshingly, some of the most arresting portraits feature older women, such as Carmen Dell’Orefice, Iman and Catherine Deneuve, proving age is no barrier to glamour.
Each subject’s unique look shines through in their portrait. Daphne Guinness is painted in shades of black, white and grey, except for slashes of magenta make-up that draw the whole image together and give a hint of her fearless sense of style. Meanwhile, vintage devotee Dita Von Teese is shown in various seductive outfits, but arguably the best is also the least revealing – a banana yellow Schiaparelli couture dress that practically fizzes off the page.
Downton’s residency at Claridge’s has seen the famous hotel’s Fumoir bar act as the perfect backdrop to many of the portraits in the book. A 2011 study of Joan Collins, her hair swept under a turban, must have involved intense precision. Whilst most of the image is conveyed in confident single lines, the eyes and lips are delicately shaded.
A real high point – for Downton and for readers – is a series of four Cate Blanchett covers he produced for Vogue Australia‘s 50th anniversary issue in 2009. It became the fastest-selling issue in the magazine’s history and proves, in his own words, ‘Drawings can sell magazines. Editors take note.’
One of the strongest parts of the book is the last major section, showing his preliminary sketches. Whereas the rest of the book uses glossy high quality paper, this is much coarser, and it really suits the images. You can sometimes see the torn edges of a page from a ring-bound sketchbook, or creases where wet ink from his Japanese brush pens has saturated and then distorted the paper. Seeing the process behind the finished pieces is what makes this book more than just a simple coffee table read – it peeks behind the curtain and unveils some of the technique involved in these portraits.
Downton is quoted as saying ‘I think fashion illustration is every bit as evocative as fashion photography’. After reading Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women, who wouldn’t agree with him?
Published by Laurence King, David Downton: Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women is available to buy online here. (Photograph of David Downton c/o Jacobus Snyman).