This is one Downton you won't want to miss

We asked artist David Downton for the top five highlights of his remarkable career

When you consider that the average career of a fashion illustrator spans five years before their pen runs dry and fashion's eye wanders, you understand the longevity of David Downton's effortless brushwork. The first artist in residence at Claridge’s hotel in London, as well as creator of Fenwick of Bond Street’s beauty and fashion advertising, he began 30-years ago illustrating yoghurt pots, menus and even a sex manual.

He was sent on a whim by a newspaper to record the couture shows in Paris, and has rarely been seen without a pen in hand since. We asked him to share the moments he will most treasure capturing the great and good in his evocative illustrations.

1. My friendship with Carmen Dell'Orefice 

It is quite hard to get over the shock and awe when Carmen Dell’Orefice is in the room. And yet her beauty is the least interesting thing about her. She is an incredible beauty. She is the Taj Mahal of beauty - you almost have to get over it. She is quite open about having work done. She visits the WW11 doctors she says: "If they can put the soldiers back together". She is magic here on earth and I feel incredibly protective of her. She is quite the opposite of what people might think. I say to her: "You could be Cruella de Vil with the way you look," but she just isn’t. She is the legend down the hall. Her career spans 70 years. When you write that, it almost looks wrong. It is an unbroken arc encompassing the likes of Cecil Beaton to Norman Parkinson.

Carmen Dell

I remember the first time we met. It was at her Park Avenue apartment and my heart was in my mouth. She opened the door in curlers, a face pack and fluffy slippers and looked nothing like Carmen - nothing. But being herself (she can smooth any situation) she said: “You’re lucky I had anything on at all”. At our next meeting I drew her in her full regalia. Later I said to her: “If I’d had an iPhone when we first met I could have killed your 70-year career with one snap!” We have been friends for 15 years.

 

2. John Galliano for Christian Dior

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Image: Guy Marineau

I recently saw the Marchesa Luisa Casati exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice. There was a film of the 1998 John Galliano for Christian Dior couture collection which was inspired by her and which I was lucky enough to attend. It reminded me how rare a spectacle the show was. It was the most extraordinary and mind blowing extravaganza, from Maharajas serving champagne to a tango orchestra, and then muse Suzanne von Aichinger wearing a crinoline so vast that she shattered champagne glasses as she ran through the room - it was the most excessive and beautiful thing.

3. Christy, Kate and Naomi at Versace Couture

My career divides into two halves. The first dozen or so years were spent as a jobbing illustrator, wagging my tail when the phone rang. I would do anything as I wanted to learn and make a living. I was sent to the couture shows in 1996 on a whim of How To Spend It magazine. Until that moment I had never actually stepped into the fashion world. I had done some work for Hardy Amies but suddenly I had couture. I went straight to the black run. I didn’t have any build up. I went to the Ritz in Paris and saw the Versace show, the swansong of the supermodel era with Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell storming the catwalk side by side.

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I just thought this is unreal. This is a parallel world where everyone is beautiful. It was the opposite of every day. Couture has remained the magic lantern for me. Every year, twice a year I have never missed a season. Even today it is the engine that sparks fashion. It has diminished since those days, maybe Karl (Lagerfeld) at Chanel still creates an extravaganza, but I was lucky when I began, I saw the rise of Galliano and McQueen and the last shows of Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Gianni Versace. I started at the top by happy accident. I didn't know what I was doing.

4. Meeting my best friend in fashion

I have been following Erin O’Connor around with a pen for the last 15 years. Fashion writer Iain R Webb said: “I am the world’s slowest paparazzo”. Erin embodies precisely what I try to produce on paper. I remember the first time I saw her, it was the 1999 Jean Paul Gaultier couture show and I nudged the person next to me and asked: “Who is that?”. It was like nature had engineered exactly how I wanted my drawing to look.

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Graphic and distinctive, she is black and white. She has all the proportions of a fashion drawing, her neck goes on and on. Then I got to know her and I discovered she is funny, loyal and has become a true friend. I recently drew her naked and nine months pregnant. She has been an ongoing cornerstone of my professional life and a great friend. A woman’s beauty is the opening act of a drawing. You cannot help but be attracted and entranced by it, but that alone doesn't translate into the whole performance. It is the distinctive qualities, the personality, how you are in a room, how you are within yourself, what you project, that is what makes a drawing. It is not necessarily the prettiest girl in school - she would be in the Mario Testino picture - it is often the most interesting.

5. And, of course, capturing Cate Blanchett

All the way through my career I had been told drawings don’t sell magazines. They are not commercial, they are not sexy but in 2009 I had a phone call: “Would I go to Australia to draw Cate Blanchett for the 50th anniversary cover of Australian Vogue?” I thought you have got to be kidding? Who would you want to draw more than her? She represents, talent, looks, style - it couldn't have been better. “Yep”, I thought “I’m packing right now”. It turned out that she had to be in London so I didn't go to Australia but I did get to draw her.

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The editor flew from Australia, there was Sam McKnight doing hair, clothes from McQueen, I was flattered they took it as seriously as a photo shoot but there were 11 people at the sitting, I thought I don’t need 11 people and made nine of them go. I kept thinking this job won’t happen. They will reshoot her for the cover and I will be inside. I did four different covers and it was the fastest selling issue in the history of the magazine. It won magazine cover of the year at industry awards in Australia. It was a brief and Pyrrhic victory. I should have retired then. I did it for every illustrator who had been told that drawings won’t sell magazines. It was a great moment but sadly a rarity.

By Claire Brayford