‘Dad, I really like your drawings and paintings; when you’re dead I’m going to hold an exhibition of them.” My daughter said to me one evening last summer.
“Thank you darling,” I said. “That’s a really nice idea, but I’ve got a better one: why don’t we have one while I’m alive?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.
In 1990, five years before she was born, I did once have an exhibition. It was at the Alterations Gallery in Holland Park, West London – otherwise known as Perkins the Dry Cleaners. I hung up my paintings between the shirts and suits. I’d tried the Royal Academy but they’d said they were full up, and anyway they didn’t do dry cleaning.
“I’ve just noticed they all appear to be self portraits,” Gary the owner said, on the evening of the opening party. “Do you think that’s unusual?” I asked. “Try telling that to Rembrandt.”
‘They’re different worlds – art and dry cleaning,’ he said
“Is he coming to the party? If he is, I hope he’s bringing his laundry,” he said.
I’d invited all my friends and told them if that they brought along their washing they got 10 per cent off both their cleaning and the paintings. You don’t get that at White Cube or the Saatchi, do you?
By the end of the night I hadn’t sold a single painting -but Gary was doing a roaring business at the dry cleaning counter. “I told you £10,000 was a little on the high side for a life-size full length portrait of you,” he said.
“I just don’t understand it.” I said, “I really thought the cleaning and painting offer would be irresistible.”
“Listen to me,” Gary said. “they’re totally different worlds – the art world and the world of dry cleaning…”
I’d first found myself drawing people on the Tube on the back of my ticket in the 70s during rush hour. The Central Line was my favourite. “Oi! You looking at me,” a skinhead once shouted. “Were we at school together?” I said.
As I’m divorced, I’ve been eating out every night for the past 15 year and I’ve moved into drawing people in restaurants… when they aren’t looking. If you know anyone who wants a drawing of the back of Steven Spielberg’s head, call me. I’ve drawn thousands of people while they’re eating and nobody has ever spotted me doing it – except for Avi. An Israeli, he was staying at the same hotel as I was in Kerala, India, in 2007. Avi threatened to kill me – clearly he didn’t want to be drawn.
“You Scotland Yard? You follow me? You’re a policeman? You draw me – I kill you!”
“Why are you leaving the hotel,” the lady owner asked me. “You only arrived this morning…
“No, everything’s fine,” I said, “except that one of your other guests has just threatened to kill me.” After that, I decided it was probably not a good idea to draw Israelis who were facing me across the same table at lunch in South India – a rule I’ve managed to keep to ever since.