© David Hepher, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

STUDY 1993

David Hepher (1935 – )


36 X 76 CM
Accession number


David Hepher is a lapidific painter: he brings the real stuff of architecture into his paintings, but beyond that, this study is layered, exploring how buildings dilapidate according to how they are lived in. It starts with a solid observation of a South London high rise on the right hand side, where the layer of acrylic and plaster mix doesn’t just describe but mimics the crust of the concrete blocks. A partial sketch of a section of balconies on the left side is allowed to disappear into blocks of mauve and beige paint. Midway, the canvas itself is made to embody the wall of the same tower block, with piece of graffiti daubed on it, viewed as if in sudden close up. In the bottom left-hand corner, in place of the artist’s signature, the painting has been tagged ‘WEST HAM’. Analysing the urban landscape from multiple points of view, David Hepher’s mode of inquiry incurs moments of method acting, where he adopts the visual language of the locality. A piece of red graffiti holds centre stage, acting as interlocutor between the representational (the figurative sketches), the literal (the texture, like a swatch of the tower’s walls) and the abstract (the hard edges of the left tower block sketch dwindle into the Mondrian-esque). In an arch-Modern way, it insists on the flatness of the picture plane; it relates the artist’s canvas to the council estate walls, both as spaces for expression. The graffiti, of a two-up two-down house, with a chimney and garden path, is a classic child’s picture of a family house. Writing in 1980, Hepher said:

‘Inevitably, in painting these buildings questions about society that interest me arise, but it is not because of these questions that I paint the flats. I have always painted houses, or housescapes. A house, or more symbolically a home, is one of the earliest images a child paints. In many ways it represents, particularly for the English, the face people present to the world, at the same time providing a refuge from too close a contact with other people. All the owner's personality is revealed in his home. This is why I only paint residential flats – they have a soul that glamorous office architecture doesn't have. In spite of their beauty I don't want to paint the sleek and shiny city blocks. I think there is a danger of that becoming incestuous, too much like art celebrating art. I like best to work from council blocks, preferably stained and eroded by the dirt and the weather, where the facial appearance is continually changed by the people who live there, their comings and goings, and the changing decor. I would like to think that the pictures could make people look differently at the flats around them, to see beauty in objects that they normally dismiss as ugly.’[1]

Born in Surrey, Hepher studied at Camberwell School of Art and then the Slade School of Art. Always working in his neighbourhood, from life, Hepher stuck to South London. Prior to the tower blocks his subject was suburban house fronts. Between 1969 and 1974 he painted the Edwardian semi-detached houses of Townley Road, East Dulwich, in such painstaking detail he was labelled as a ‘hyper-realist’. These were followed by paintings of the monumental, if derided, architecture of South London’s council estates: Stockwell Flats I (1974–5) and Stockwell Flats 2 (1975), Peckham Flats (1975–6) and Albany Flats (1977–9, Tate Collection), Walworth Flats (1976–9). Far from ‘hyper-realist’, this study in the British Council Collection, with the house reduced to graffiti, serves to bring a chunk of the city into a very different context. Attending to the seemingly faceless towers of brutalist architecture – their scars and signs of life – Hepher’s study amounts to a portrait.

[1] David Hepher, ‘Urban Realism’, Artscribe, No.22, April 1980, p.48