On Wednesday 18 March Dawn of the Unread (in partnership with Nottingham Trent University) won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards (more of this in another blog). While in London I went on a literary tour of NW5 (Kentish Town) as it’s been home to DH Lawrence, Karl Marx and George Orwell. I was made aware of NW5s incredible literary history by the Secret Artist who has painted Blue Plaque buildings in watercolours. They’re beautiful paintings that have helped to map out the heritage of this area in a really unique way and so I thought we’d celebrate our win by championing the work of someone from another city who cares about their home as much as we care about ours here in Nottingham. Enjoy…
We live in a world of celebrity culture and the selfie so it’s quite rare to find someone who wishes to remain anonymous….
I want the focus to be on the buildings rather than me. Most of them have been around for many years and will be around for many years after I’m gone.
When did you start painting blue plaques and why?
The first Blue Plaque house I painted was George Orwell’s house in Lawford Road. I was painting pictures of listed buildings in Kentish Town, where I live. Although Orwell’s house is not listed, it is of great local interest because Kentish Town is full of writers. It was the manager of our local bookshop, the Owl Bookshop, who said he thought his customers would buy postcards of that house. He was right. I painted that in July 2014.
Did you intentionally set out to create a collection of blue plaque paintings or did this kind of happen after painting the first one?
Someone who liked my listed building paintings suggested I start doing postcards of Blue Plaque houses. Up till then I had only done George Orwell’s house but I really liked the idea. He has managed to persuade the local council to put up some Blue Plaques, so it is his passion. I saw it as a good way to broaden my art project, which up to then had been restricted to listed buildings and the popular old shops of Kentish Town. This allowed me to go all over London in search of houses with plaques.
You’ve painted DH Lawrence’s old home. Could you tell us a little bit about this area and any details you have of Lawrence’s time there?
This house is in the Vale of Health, a hamlet in the middle of Hampstead Heath, where many writers have lived in the past. Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived here, in Byron Villas, in 1915. While they were there, his novel, The Rainbow, was declared obscene by London magistrates.
When you paint your pictures do you research the famous person who lived at the house and if so, does this inform your approach in any way?
There are many Blue Plaques commemorating long-forgotten people. I don’t bother with them, I’m afraid. I pick well-known names that I think will appeal to a wide range of people who might buy prints of the paintings. So long as the person lived in the existing building, then I will paint it. I don’t bother if someone ‘lived on this site’. Sometimes the house is interesting or beautiful, sometimes it’s not. I will always do a bit of research, just out of interest. Also, if I get some nice anecdotes about a person, I will use these when I publicise the painting.
What tools do you use to create these gorgeous paintings?
I paint the pictures on an iPad, using an app called Paper 53. It is very simple and allows me to draw and paint free hand, making the pictures look like watercolours. Watercolour is my favourite medium but the iPad allows me to mix colours very quickly so I can finish these pictures faster than I would if I was getting my watercolour paints out all the time. It is very satisfying and lots of fun. I take photos of the buildings for reference and have the photo up on another computer as I paint on the iPad. It is very relaxing, but when I go on holiday, I revert to old-fashioned watercolours, which I love.
What’s your favourite listed building?
My favourite listed building is Blustons, a 1930s shop in Kentish Town which sells clothes from the 1940s and 50s. It has a beautiful shop front and is famous in Kentish Town where everyone wonders who on earth buys such old-fashioned clothes. But apparently a lot of their business comes from the film industry, when period clothes are needed. Presumably, long ago, the clothes were fashionable.
You’ve focused on capturing the buildings of NW5. Any plans to expand elsewhere?
There are about 120 listed buildings in Kentish Town. I have painted all but two, and will get the last ones finished soon. I have edged into NW1 (Camden Town), a bit, as it has a lot of attractive old buildings
It seems like you’ve set up the perfect business, concentrating on a niche subject and then offering commissions where needed. What advice would you give to artists thinking about setting up their own business?
I have been struck by how much cafes and coffee shops are keen to have art exhibitions by local artists. This seems to be more and more the norm and a good way to get known. Social media is also very important to me. I don’t use Facebook but I am very active on twitter, where I post my latest paintings and communicate with my followers. Make yourself accessible. Although I am anonymous and few people know my name, I set up a Secret Artist email account, a Secret Artist Paypal account and a Secret Artist website which shows all my paintings and prices. I spend a lot of time getting postcards and larger prints printed, having befriended the local printer, and delivering them to shops that sell them to their customers. The other day I was on holiday in south-east Asia, and the local vicar emailed me, asking for a print of his church urgently. I emailed the printer (who had a jpeg of the church having done a print of it before), and the vicar was able to pick up the print from the printer the next day while I was on the other side of the world.
Where can we see your work (exhibitions/online)
My website is http://www.secretartistNW5.com and I currently have an exhibition at a popular local café called Map Studio Café in Grafton Road, Kentish Town. This is running indefinitely at the moment. There will be another show in June at a coffee shop called Two Doors Down in Kentish Town Road, showing my paintings of the local shops.
- Where did Karl Marx live? (kentishtowner.co.uk)
- Our Secret Artist (andrewwhitehead.net)
- Blue Plaque Launch (patternotion.blogspot.co.uk)
- Owl Bookshop (matildaproject.wordpress.com)
- The Art of Anonymity: The Ongoing of Mystery of London’s Bambi (artgallery.co.uk)
- Spotlight on Anonymous Drawings (blog.artconnectberlin.com)
- 22 Best iPad Art Apps for Drawing and Sketching (creativebloq.com)
- Blue Plaques (londonhistorians.wordpress.com)