An essay - 2020
I first encountered Watson’s work subconsciously, my childhood spent in the shadow of a naïve painting of a figure and Blast Furnace hanging on the wall of my father’s house. It was commissioned by him in 1994, and etched into my memory is an anonymous steel worker, his back to the viewer looking out at a blast furnace behind a row of terraced houses. The painting is reminiscent of my father’s childhood in Middlesbrough and in remembrance of my grandfather who worked at Lackenby and Cargo Fleet Steelworks.
Over the years I have become familiar with Watson’s paintings, visiting his exhibitions and having the joy of seeing them around the house. A particular favourite of mine being his fiery ‘The Fifth of November,’ shown at Salford Museum in 2016; one can almost feel the burning heat radiating from the bonfire on your skin and hear the crackling and sizzling of the roaring blaze. For me, it is Watson’s power to evoke sounds, smells, touches, and tastes, while also creating visual interest that makes viewing his work an interactive, challenging and exciting experience, as opposed to a passive activity.
The importance of Northern art could not be more evident than in the work of Watson, born 1944 in Southbank, a suburb of Industrial Middlesbrough, less than 2 miles from where he still lives and continues to paint today. Watson’s subject matter largely concentrates on figures of labourers, often walking to and from, or at work, and industrial landscapes. For him capturing and recording his surroundings, both past and present, is imperative. Describing how he “breathed the soot, muck and dirt in everyday” and how “it’s inside me, it’s part of me, I used to marvel at specs of soot settling on me mam’s washing and an eerie pink glow in the sky.”
The capturing and recording of industrial towns and cities is not in itself a new and unique concept within the canon and history of art. Since the Ancients, and particularly prevalent during the Middle Ages, artists have recorded the work of labourers in manuscripts, drawings and paintings. Watson’s work can be seen to follow in this age-old tradition also prevalent in the pictures of his contemporary 20th and 21st century British artists; one can particularly see this similarity with the Ashington Group, known as the Pitmen Painters. The Amber Collective, a film and photography group set up in 1968, shares a similar aim to that of David Watson - to capture working-class life in North East England, as does Chris Killip, a Manx photographer renowned for his gritty black and white photographs of Tyneside. Killip’s series ‘The Last Ships’ strongly relates to Watson’s role as a Red Leader and both Watson and Killip passionately strive to capture a now-gone industry.
This artistic documentation of industry was not limited to the North East. Looking to artists in the North West of England one can see great similarity between the work of Watson with that of L. S. Lowry, Harold Riley and Shirley Baker. Watson’s imagery is reminiscent of Lowry’s workers (albeit closer and more personal) Watson’s funnels like Lowry’s foreboding omnipresent smoking chimneys, while the warmth of Baker’s photography connect with Watson’s interpretations of community. One can also make a connection between the artists who captured the mining and slate industry of North Wales, such as the Polish-British Realist Josef Herman, and those who depicted the steel and shipbuilding industries of the North East like Watson.
Inspired by his own recollections and experiences: “I only do what I do, and what I know”, Watson of course was an apprentice ‘Red Leader’ at Smith Docks painting the hulls of ships, a familiar motif in his work, along with Industrial landscapes, steelworks and dockyards.
Watson’s daily experiences have culminated and embedded his palette with a pigment of honesty, evident through his choice of medium and technique. Much of Watson’s early work was painted on curtain lining, fixed onto handmade stretchers made by his late wife Brenda. This collaborative process between David and Brenda lends a great intimacy to his paintings, with frames principally made by the pair often rendered using thick and roughly cut oddments of wood. In doing so, Watson rejected the traditional processes of the art world, opting for more industrial materials that surrounded him in his working life as a Red Leader. These materials were cheap and readily available thus making production easier, yet also reflecting the very subjects of his paintings. Watson would often find discarded wood within the Teesside landscape thus adding more depth to his work; they are both industrial in their subject and physicality. Over time Watson has moved from this process choosing instead to execute his paintings on board or primed MDF, without losing their simplicity and impact.
Watson’s application of oil paint also reflects his subject matter and his role as a Red Leader painting the hulls of ships. One can almost imagine him using a similar technique with his paintings. With broad, dynamic and sweeping strokes, the surfaces of his paintings are covered with a thick impasto, one that would be envied by the Impressionists, as such capturing the essence of his subjects rather than their details.
Watson has also created a series of around 30 paintings that capture the death of the steel industry, part rationalisation and part acceptance of this decline. Watson also explores the effects and the huge physical toll these heavy industries took on the labourers through his figural compositions, sometimes placed within landscapes, sometimes against a coloured or dark ground to emphasise the men. Depicting the workers who “would come off shift looking groggy, down and out,'' looking “as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders,” they are portrayed with grimaces upon their gaunt and drawn faces, sunken eyes, and hunched shoulders, resigned to the daily grind. Many of these men appear almost skeletal. In paintings such as ‘The Belly of the Beast,’ (See also ‘The Dead River’ and “The Chapel Of rest’) the figures’ are reduced to just their heads, as the smoke, light and fire of the “Beast” (the furnace) envelop them; these heads, however, are those of skeletons, appearing to be skulls rather than living beings. Watson describes these men as ghosts and relics of a time long since gone. In characterising the workers in such a raw way Watson tells the stories of their hard, physically demanding work and their physical and mental strength needed to undertake it, imbuing his paintings with great emotion and impact.
While there is a great sense of darkness in his works, both in choice of colour and theme, Watson also describes the strength of community within the workers and throughout Teesside, demonstrated by his portrayals of huddled and overlapping figures suggesting their togetherness.
Despite many scenes depicting vast industrial landscapes and groups of workers, he also explores more intimate and domestic scenes often as still lifes. These contain all the elements (like flowers, food and cooking utensils) of traditional still lifes and Vanitas paintings, such as those created in the 17th Century in the Dutch Republic by Claesz, Bosschaert, de Heem and Rembrandt, yet completely subvert this tradition in style and aim. Rather than creating these works in order to display wealth or have a didactic and moral function, Watson’s paintings provide an alternative view and insight into the daily lives of the working class, painting from his own recollections of his home and what he ate. When asked why he painted ‘Spuds,’ Watson simply replied: “When I came home from work that was on the stove.”
While Watson can be partly placed within the tradition of British working class artists striving to capture their surroundings, he does not need to be characterised in such a way; Watson is an outsider driven purely by the need to record, rather than to fit into a prescribed artistic route, as is the case with many Contemporary and Modern artists. In the quest to classify artists and themes within the context of art history, using labels such as ‘Expressionist,’ it is easy to miss the essence and core of what is produced, the honesty and integrity of the individual that often exists outside of accepted norms. Painting solely for himself, and without an overriding objective to exhibit and sell, Watson is a humble man with an innate drive to preserve his surroundings through art. His simple power of storytelling renders him a true outsider of national significance; thus we must begin trying to classify him and the steel industry within a new critical and academic context.