CLARIDGE’S is not the first hotel in London to have an artist-in-residence. That distinction may belong to one of its competitors, The Savoy.
In 1896, American artist James Whistler moved into The Savoy while his wife sought cancer treatment in London. While there, he completed several drawings of the view of the River Thames from his hotel window. Whistler recommended The Savoy to Claude Monet, who stayed there first in 1899 and then again in 1900 and 1901. During his later two stays, Monet painted several scenes of Waterloo Bridge as seen from his room.
Illustrious names indeed, but not quite the gig that fashion illustrator David Downton has. Downtown is Claridge’s first artist-in-residence, a position he has had since September 2011. In a nutshell, in exchange for accommodation at the hotel when in London - his main home is in Sussex - he draws some of its more famous and fabulous guests. “People say they envy me, but I envy me,” says Downton over drinks in “his office”, also known as table four in the Fumoir bar, just off the lobby at Claridge’s. Presumably, Monet and Whistler were paying guests at The Savoy and painted the view because they liked it, with their creative output their own rather than the property of the hotel. Downtown, on the other hand, has on ongoing relationship with Claridge’s and is very much part of the staff here - he was even featured in the 2012 BBC documentary series on the hotel,Inside Claridge’s.
“I feel like I have a job, which sounds very strange for someone who has worked freelance for so many years, but I do and I’m very happy to be part of it. I don’t want to sound corny, but I do feel part of an extended family. How long will it last? Everything ends, as it must, and when it does it will have been a wonderful period for me and, I hope, it will have been fun and productive for (Claridge’s) as well. But they will have to find me to get rid of me.”
The job came about after a chance meeting between Downton and Paula Fitzherbert, director of public relations for the Maybourne Hotel Group (which as well as Claridge’s includes The Berkeley and The Connaught). “I met Paula at an event at the V & A and, after discovering who she was, I said, ‘you should do my book launch’. She said she’d love to, but it was a very casual conversation and that didn’t happen. Somehow, I guess, I stayed on her radar and then in early 2011 she asked me to come in and have a meeting with the hotel’s general manager, Thomas Kochs, with the vague notion of working on something together.”
Eventually, according to Downton, the idea of an artist-in-residence began to take shape. Downton’s tenure at Claridge’s is not merely about drawing famous guests as they stay here; the people he asks to sit for him must have a strong connection with the hotel. “Being famous isn’t enough; it is the connection with the hotel that counts,” he says. Downtown is one of the world’s most sought-after fashion illustrators and has worked for brands such as Chanel, Dior, Tiffany & Co, Estee Lauder and the Victoria & Albert Museum. His work has also appeared inVanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, theNew York TimesandVogue, including the cover of the 50th-anniversary issue ofVogue Australia. Therefore, for his first series of Claridge’s portraits, which now hang in the bar at the hotel’s new fine-dining restaurant, Fera at Claridge’s, Downton focused on drawing people from the style world who also had a connection with the hotel.
Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, who designed several suites at the hotel, was Downton’s first subject. Daphne Guinness - artist, heiress, fashion muse, model, actor and one-time permanent resident of the hotel - posed like a spider on the black-and-white marble floor of the ground level. Alter Elbaz, the creative director of Lanvin, gave Downton just 15 minutes to capture him on paper. Sarah Jessica Parker sat for Downton while watching TV in her room after a gruelling day of press interviews. Octogenarian model Carmen Dell’Orefice posed in a bathtub because the Philip Treacy hat she was wearing went nicely with the bathroom tiles. Joan Collins posed in a hotel bathrobe with a towel on her head and wearing a £2 million diamond necklace.
The “style icons” series was drawn in a simple palette of predominantly black and white. In parallel with that series, Downton is doing a more personal one, in colour, and using the Fumoir bar as a location. Subjects in this series so far include model Erin O’Connor, milliner Stephen Jones and shoe designer Christian Louboutin. “I’ve also started drawing some of the staff, so it’s a whole view of my time here,” says Downton.
“Because we can all take pictures with our phones, I think people look to drawing as a kind of mark-making, whether you do it digitally or by hand. It’s something different and hopefully something special. I think in the next five years there will be a real surge in fashion illustration because there are courses on it now and there used not to be. There’s a groundswell of interest with books, exhibitions, collaborations with designers, and so on. Fashion illustration has been announced dead so often that I take no notice any more.”