top of page

Reflections on David Watson at 80

Born in Albion Street on the South Bank in 1944, where we are aptly here celebrating him today, David Watson continues to depict and embody this community’s rich history. Approaching 80, Watson has devoted his entire life to visually documenting Teesside’s industrial past and those who helped these industries thrive. This rare and dogged dedication, on occasion perceived as ‘unfashionable’ by certain occupiers of the elitist
contemporary art scene, must instead be wholly embraced and has earned Watson the title of a stalwart — if not an icon — of the Northern Art scene and Teesside itself.


As a child Watson walked along the South Bank’s spoil tips and slag heaps, beginning to sketch the works and the people who worked there. A significant moment in Waton’s life and artistic career was when he attended an after-school art club at Victoria Street Secondary Modern, where he was tutored by the late Tom Dalton. Upon leaving school, Watson began to work as a Red Leader on the South Bank’s Smith’s Dock — a once thriving ship-building yard which, like many industries in this region, has since fallen into almost total decline. Describing how “every day, I breathed in the smoke, sludge, and grime; it’s within me, it’s a part of me” these experiences informed, and continue to inform, the subject of his work.


Watson’s paintings, typically dominated and characterised by large, gaunt and anonymous faces, frequently depict the vivid memories he has of the labourers who “would come off shift looking groggy, down and out'' and the families who would support them, looking “as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders”. While these paintings depict the brutal reality of life spent in the eerie shadows of the blast furnaces, they frequently convey a tender togetherness which bound Teesside's tight-knit industrial communities — described in paint via groups of huddled workers on their way home, or sat together in pubs and working men’s clubs. For Watson, it has always remained imperative that he “paint what I know, all I know, the people, the works, those that have gone and what is left now”.

Watson’s approach to the medium of painting, and the materiality of the artworks he produces, complement and embody the very subjects he strives to document. His broad and dynamic strokes, resulting in a thick and almost ‘alive’ impasto, can be drawn in parallel with the technique he and other Red Leaders employed while painting the hulls of vast ships. Rummaging local derelict houses for oddments of wood to be later made into stretchers and frames in collaboration with his late wife Brenda, Watson’s early paintings were primarily executed on curtain lining — a rejection of ‘traditional’ art world practices. While his later paintings can be found on board or primed MDF, they certainly have not lost this inherent simplicity. Most of the paintings in this exhibition are housed in simple, yet artistically significant, slat-inspired wooden frames, emphasising Watson’s craftsman-like approach, while embodying and honouring the simple and honest principles, such as ‘Make Do and Mend’, by which Watson was brought up and lives.

An octogenarian, Watson’s mobility and dexterity are slightly diminished — his spirit, determination and talent, however, most certainly have not. Watson remains as prolific an artist as ever and shows no sign of stopping. Having had no choice but to adapt to such changes, which he has done so deftly, Watson now works exclusively on paper, alternating between pen and ink and acrylic — media which have served to reinvigorate his practice. As Watson himself says: ‘I'll keep painting until the man upstairs calls time, then I'm off”. This strength, passion, and dedication for recording his home and its history, demands the utmost respect and celebration both here on Teesside and on a broader national stage.

In the words of Mark Parham, a long-term friend and curator of Watson’s: Teesside — the place, its industry, and most importantly its people, is part of Watson’s DNA, and in turn, Watson is part of Teesside’s.


The recent announcement of the planned closure of two blast furnaces at Britain’s largest steelworks, Port Talbot — set to cause 3,000 lost jobs at the plant in South Wales and have a devastating impact on the local community - is reminiscent of the news which emerged here on Teesside in 2015 that the majority of the steelworks (namely the Redcar blast furnace and the Redcar and South Bank coke ovens, alongside the BOS Plant at Lackenby) would close forever. With increasing uncertainty facing the British steel industry and the communities which rely upon it, Watson’s work, which serves to preserve them, has never been more pertinent. From the rolling Cleveland Hills to the peaks of the Bannau Brycheioniog, due to artists including Watson these communities of hard-working people and the industries in which they toiled will never be forgotten.

Drawing 2.jpg
Drawing 3.jpg

-Lily Indira Kirkby

bottom of page