The English artist and illustrator chooses his favourite things, from a Greek temple to a Constable painting

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012

Britain’s most prolific designer of postage stamps is equally at home on a larger scale: he designed the platform-length murals at Charing Cross tube station. David Gentleman, 82, has illustrated many books and book jackets, as well as publishing volumes of his paintings and drawings of places he has visited—India, Italy, Paris, and now, for the second time, London.

CITY London (above)
I’ve lived in London for 60 years, so it’s the place I know best—I love its contrasts and its history. Wherever you go you come across striking changes of tone: I live in quite a gentrified bit of Camden Town, but it’s a rackety old place all around me. I love the Thames for its space and the chance to see things from a distance, which a city doesn’t normally allow you. I love Regent’s Canal, which is near my house, and the Thames for the glisten that water brings. Canals are an escape from what is around them, however busy or industrial that is. My new book looks at London month by month, so I was out sketching all year round. I do take photographs, but the most personal drawings are all drawn on the spot. They have been done with the least time to get things right, which I used to think was a drawback, but now I think it gives an important sense of liveliness and how you did it. There are more people in this book than in my other books—in the past I’ve avoided drawing people or left them till last and run out of energy. Now I think they are part of the whole and too interesting to leave out.

VIEW from Primrose Hill (also above)
I can walk to Primrose Hill along the canal. I love the panorama from Canary Wharf right round to Westminster Cathedral with all the skyscrapers in between, and the distant skyline with the two radio masts. I like the slopes of the hill itself with the trees that go nearly to the top, especially in the snow. I’ve seen the view change a lot over the years. The most striking building used to be St Paul’s Cathedral; now you have to dodge around to see it behind the Gherkin and those other City buildings. I don’t mind that. St Paul’s is lucky to be there at all—it’s a leftover, a national treasure but barely functioning in its original role. I don’t think the London Eye is an interesting structure in the way the Eiffel tower was—that was a breathtaking use of the new skills and structural techniques of its time, the Eye is just entertainment. 

BUILDING Temple of Poseidon, Paestum
I saw this temple for the first time about 60 years ago, when I went to Italy on a student travelling scholarship. I hadn’t seen the Greek temples in Athens, so this was my first. In any case, Paestum is the most completely preserved Greek temple, the most wonderful, majestic building. It’s Doric, so the columns are simple—you don’t have to draw all the acanthus leaves as you do on a Corinthian column, but there’s an inner row of columns, which is unusual, so it is quite a complicated thing to draw.

BEACH Dunwich Heath
I’ve enjoyed this beach near our Suffolk home with our children and our grandchildren, too. It’s a mile or two from Dunwich village, which has been eaten away by the sea. This beach is farther south where the cliff isn’t crumbling so much, and the beach is sandier—it’s pebbly at Dunwich itself. It stretches away towards Sizewell nuclear-power station. When the tide goes out it leaves very regular loops of pebbles and shells, which I like to draw—I’ve noticed over the years of sketching that this is a predictable effect. And the seas and the skies are lovely to draw.

JOURNEY Nilgiri Mountain railway

About 40 years ago I illustrated “The Jungle Book”, which first took me to India. Then about 15 years ago I did a book of drawings of India, and went on this little railway, which is now part of a World Heritage site. You go from lower ground at Mettupalayam up to Ooty in the hills, and the last bit of the journey passes through wonderful mountain scenery. It’s a rack railway because parts of it are very steep, and it uses Swiss-made steam engines. Halfway up, I asked if I could go in the engine for the rest of the way, and they said yes. I did some drawing, but it was hard because you’re shaking about, and I watched the lovely, timeless activity of poking the fire.

HOTEL Fort Tiracol, Goa
My daughter and her husband lived in India for four years, and sometimes when we visited them we would also go to this hotel. Fort Tiracol is at the very northern tip of Goa, about 25 miles from the capital Panjim—it’s a quiet spot. You have to cross a river by ferry, then there’s a hill with an old Portuguese fort on it. The hotel is a fortified oblong with a pretty, white, wedding-cake-like church in the middle, and lovely rooms all around it. You can take the ferry back again and walk to a shabby fishing village and a beach with a few sun shelters. I would love to go back there.

WORK OF ART The Cornfield

I’ve always been fond of Suffolk: my wife is from there and we have a bolthole there. I haven’t ever drawn this view, but I’ve drawn a lot of cornfields because they used to coincide with the children’s long summer holidays. I know Dedham Vale—I don’t know which is the exact field John Constable painted, but you could work it out—and I love this picture, with the big trees, the lane leading into the distance, the little boy drinking from the stream with his flock of sheep, and the church, and the River Stour glinting.

David Gentleman was talking to Rebecca Willis, our associate editor and a former travel editor of

“London, You’re Beautiful: An Artist’s Year” (Particular Books) was published in May

Image David Gentleman