The Modest Master

reviewed by David Newton

The Modest Master

by David Downtown

Fashion portraitist David Downton's first book immortalises his subjects...and himself.

It's been a long time coming but David Downton, surely this era's foremost fashion illustrator, has published his first book. Subtitled "Portraits of the World's Most Stylish Women", this lavish tome clearly outlines why the most glamorous celebrities and magazines of our time all clamour to be immortalised by his brush and pencil.

I didn't realise it at the time, but I met him at his first gallery show, back in the 90's. He was on his own (it was during the day in the middle of the week) and he had time to tell me about his work. I immediately loved his spare, elegant, almost Japanese (to me) brushwork, and already back then he had mastered the art of less-is-more. I remember being stunned when he told me that none of my favourite pictures had sold at the private view because buyers wanted to get more for their money, so the images with fewer brushstrokes were passed over for the more busy, "fuller" ones!

This depressing lesson in commerce has stayed with me ever since, and I thank God that David Downton's beautifully economic style has prevailed and is now rightly revered. And I regret not buying one of his ravishing depictions of Paris couture that hung on the walls. Alas I was an impoverished student at the time!

But back to the book! It contains over 170 of Downton's portraits, all beautifully rendered in colour, occasionally with notes from the artist about the image: how it came about and David's thoughts on the sitting and the subject. It truly feels that almost every modern-day female icon (this volume is solely of women, although Downton has depicted many men) is included in this book, from Grand Dames such as Joan Collins, Carmen Dell'Orefice and Anna Piaggi, to present day sitters like Karlie Kloss, Michelle Dockery and Lady Gaga.


I say "almost" as there are still a few tantalising omissions: where is Kate Moss, for instance? It may be because the perennially "cool" and "rocky" Moss doesn't quite fit this world of heady glamour. For David Downton's art evokes a bygone era when illustration still held sway in the leading fashion magazines. He name-checks several of his personal heroes in the book, and for me, the artist he most closely resembles is René Gruau, whose heyday was the 1930's-1950's. Gifted with the same stylish economy and evoking an almost cinematic, rarefied glamour, the two artists are best suited to a supremely flattering artistic style that favours women with a slightly detached, artificial air.


Indeed, when you most often see Downton's work published nowadays, it is when a highbrow/glamorous, slightly retro feel has been needed to create a mini world of aspiration and desire. There is nothing "gritty", "urban" or "down with da kids" about his work...and that's a good thing! For this reason his flattering pen and brush work wonderfully when immortalising ladies of a certain age, who appear forever somewhere in their late thirties / early forties, immaculate and soignée.

What I really loved about this book is that, in amongst all these depictions of impossible glamour, Downton's own voice comes chiming through with a refreshing honesty and modesty about his own talents and place in the pantheon of legendary practitioners of fashion illustration and portraiture. He tells us candidly about his rise to prominence, the hurdles along the way, as well as the lucky breakthroughs. As stated, he still idolises his predecessors and seems wonderfully, modestly British about the fact that he now pretty much sits alongside them.

This book will have gone a long way to securing that reputation; indeed for anyone not yet acquainted with David Downton's work, it represents the perfect starter. And for fans like me, a truly beautiful record of a great talent. Oh how I wish I'd bought one in that gallery all those years ago!

DAVID DOWNTON: Portraits of the World's Most Stylish Women is published by Laurence King

It contains 175 colour illustrations over 192 pages

Hardback with french folds

ISBN 978 1 78067 6180