Painter David Harrison has had an amazing life. Fred Mann met him on the eve of his most major solo show to date to find out what took him from his beginnings in East London to becoming, via the Sex Pistols, one of the UK hottest contemporary painters.
Meeting David Harrison is a bit like spending time with a long lost friend. He looks very familiar with his red leopard print brothel creepers and perfect silver quiff. He carefully maintains the glamorous personal style that has made him a recognisable face on London’s club and party circuit since the late ‘70s. Today, David is followed everywhere by his toy poodle, Harrison.
David grew up in London in working class West Ham and from an early age there was something a bit special and creative about him. He recalls seeing a photo shoot of Jayne Mansfield in Parade Magazine when he was ten, and developing an instant obsession with glamour and dressing up. He especially loved her performance in Kiss Them For Me (1957) and would imitate the squeaking noises she made.
Knowing he was gay from a very early age, David recalls how illicit homosexuality was at that time, and how much as a boy he admired and enjoyed his uncles and their friends, handsome and in black Crombie overcoats, coming in from the pub, smelling of beer, cigars and Old Spice.
As a child David’s parents took him to galleries, especially the Tate and The National Gallery. Growing up, he was aware of modern artist such as Pablo Picasso, but it was also his parents’ taste for modern decoration, using formica and prints based on Miro, Picasso and Pollock that gave him inspiration.
After being expelled from school, Harrison went to work at IPC magazines, a job he got through his father, supposedly to learn illustration. In truth he ended up running the early glass plate Xerox machine. Using it in secret he managed to gather many images for his early collage works, as well as making many erotic images of himself in the process (once nearly being caught sitting on the machine by the MD!).
During this time the hippie movement was all the rage but David, an early hater of flares, found an alternative look. Falling in with the crowd at cult shop Let It Rock, run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren, he went fully 1950s. From the age of 16 onwards he had a bleached blond quiff and a gold lame drape jacket, blue eye shadow and his signature brothel creepers presenting a far more glamorous image than the hippies of the day. He was constantly shouted at in the street, and on some occasions arrested for his outrageous look, but he maintains that he just felt ‘more comfy that way’.
A great reassurance was the emergence of a new pop culture, led by David Bowie and Roxy Music. Alongside it came a sense of fashionable ambivalence about sexuality that made progressive ideas and freedoms possible, especially at London’s more interesting and experimental nightclubs. For David, who sometimes went out in full drag, it was a breath of fresh air and in clubs like Ron’s and Seven Kings, and later in the notorious Taboo and Kinky Gerlinky, he became a familiar figure on the cutting edge scene.
Malcolm Mclaren noticed David very early on and invited him to join a new band he was starting, called the Sex Pistols. When David replied:’ but I can’t sing’, McLaren replied, ‘that’s ok. How do you feel about making lots of money?’ David dutifully turned up for rehearsals, which to begin with were jam sessions, performing cover versions of Small Faces records. For a time, when his parents were away, Steve Jones came to stay with him supposedly to teach him guitar. Harrison played him his own favourites by Gong and David Allen, and Jones commented that ‘if Malcolm knew you liked this shit, he’d get rid of you’. Soon afterwards, Jones (a well know kleptomaniac) disappeared with Harrison’s records!
It was Harrison’s friend Jordan (the now legendary punk star of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Adam and The Ants) who ended David Harrison’s time in the Sex Pistols, by outing him to Malcolm Mclaren, telling him, ‘Don’t you know David’s queer? He likes old men.’ Mclaren responded that David might be better in a different band, which he named ‘Master of the Backside’.
Alongside David as lead singer, McLaren put Dave Vanian (later of the Dammed) and a young unknown Chrissy Hynd. However as soon as David heard Hynd sing, in awe of her talent, he told her: ‘You do it. I’m going to do my A levels’ and he quit.
Happily away from punk, which he found he hated, finding his own aesthetic and politics to be very different, David got a place at St Martin’s School of Art. He loved the ‘80s and had an amazing time. While at college he developed a close friendship with John Galliano, and used to dress up in drag as Galliano’s mum and take him biscuits during fashion school lectures.
David remained a fixture on London’s club scene. He recalls “Club land was full of very hard working people at that time. There were lots of drugs and whatever, but everybody focussed, with a real goal” and Harrison himself has a strong work ethic. He has always worked in his studio, and has attracted a large array of supporters and collectors for his paintings and sculptures such as popular historian Lucinda Lambton whom he met after making a funeral shrine to his poodle in his Bow council flat.
So what should we expect from an exhibition by such a colourful character? David Harrison plans to turn the Victoria Miro Gallery into a highly charged magical wonderland. There will be a large group of his signature beautiful paintings on panel and canvas, depicting the natural and magical world. A world populated by midnight foxes, Guerlain perfume and hares.
Another recurring subject is Pan, the pagan god of the fields, groves, and wooded glens who has the hind legs of a goat. It is the gods of nature, and the time of midnight that creates the feel of this show, a night-time fable of the imagination. And in the middle of it all, David has constructed, out of found materials, a turreted house, with golden thrones and a secret room full of disused aged scarecrows.
Harrison’s world may be a fairy story, but it’s not for children. His parallel universe is by no means innocent, and is often full of not just magical but sexual creatures. As well as his handsome god Pan, there is a host of handsome men representing a world of half human, half animal lust. Harrison says: ‘It’s nice to believe in a god that you find sexually attractive, he is very hairy, with a lovely beard!’
In addition to this David’s first major book will be launched at the same time. The book tells the story of his art from 1979 to the present. It has a forward by Lucinda Lambton, a wonderful essay by Alistair Robinson and an interview with Harrison by artist Peter Doig, also a major collector of his work.
David Harrison will be published by Philip Wilson on 3 September 2009, priced £25.00. Existence is at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 3 – 26 September.
Words: Fred Mann. Photo: Justin Phillips