A God-given talent - Prints and greetings cards by David Holden
PUBLISHED: 11:14 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013
David Holden's prints and greetings cards perfectly capture the charm of the county's ancient towns, villages and picturesque landscape – and have earned him an international following...
David Holdens prints and greetings cards perfectly capture the charm of the countys ancient towns, villages and picturesque landscape and have earned him an international following. But although his great aunt was Edith Holden, whose nature notes became an instant bestseller when published posthumously as The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, he believes his talent comes from a much higher being.
Many people glibly talk of a God-given talent, but in David Holdens case he really believes it to be true. David is one of the countys most successful artists. You may not know his name, but theres a good chance youll know his images of idyllic Sussex scenes.
They appear on prints and greetings cards across the county, and have sold in their millions. Yes, you heard me millions. At the height of his popularity, David was selling upwards of half a million cards a year.
But here comes the real miracle. David couldnt draw or paint at all until one afternoon he dropped in on a religious talk given by a New Zealand pastor in Brighton. The man had a remarkable tale to tell. Hed been stung by a box jellyfish and died, only to come back to life. And the experience had made him a devout Christian.
But the fireworks were yet to come. After his talk, the pastor picked out David from the audience, even though they had never met before, and said: This is what God has for you. Suddenly, David felt a powerful force surge through his body, pinning him to the ground, followed by a burning sensation which coursed through his hands and up his arms. Then he says God spoke to him, telling him that he had called him to paint.
Thinking this meant painting and decorating, David began to mentally remonstrate, but the voice replied: Ive called you to paint pictures. David lay pinned to the floor for a full 40 minutes and then the force stopped as suddenly as it had started. And at the end, he knew what he must do.
When I got home and told my wife Sheila that I was going to become an artist, she thought Id gone off my head, he says, laughing at the memory. But I was as shocked as anybody. I had no interest in art whatsoever and no ability as far as I knew.
But the voice in his head was too strong to ignore, so he bought the necessary materials and set to work. And lo, he found that he really could paint. There was no need to mug it up in books. Whenever I wondered what to do next, I felt this guiding hand, he says. And when I asked God what he wanted me to paint, he told me to take a look outside what did I see? I replied that I could see the beauty of nature, and he said: Why not paint that? Theres an awful lot of it.
David completed no fewer than 38 paintings in three months, working from dawn till dusk, six days a week. He traversed the county looking for picture postcard views. He painted the iconic outline of the Seven Sisters against a clear blue sky and the jaunty silhouettes of fishing boats, washed up on the shingle beach at Hastings. He painted the Jack and Jill windmills knee-deep in poppies and the flint-knapped facades on Lewes High Street. He painted downland views and bluebell walks; secret woodland and meandering rivers; the magisterial outline of Arundel Castle and the homely sight of small fishing boats bobbing on the rippling surface of Bosham Harbour.
It just flowed from me, he says, reliving the excitement. It was like learning to walk or ride a bike. I wanted to do it all the time. But the experience was more than just a gifting in art. It also changed me radically as a person. I became alive. From being quite a shy and inward person, I suddenly became an extrovert.
David tells me all this as we sit on his sun-dappled terrace, looking out over his beautiful garden in the scenic village of Barcombe in East Sussex. Though a committed Christian, hes fearful that his religious fervour makes him sound, as he puts it, like a religious nut. But you sense that his certainty and desire to spread the word have long since encouraged him to dispense with such misgivings.
I ask why he thinks he was chosen what was Gods purpose? Everybody asks me that, he says, with a defensive smile. I always say that its Gods prerogative to choose who he gifts. Why, indeed, is anybody gifted with anything? But I actually think theres potential in everyone, if only they would push the boundaries of their existence. There are things in all of us that are undiscovered.
But his faith hasnt been the only inspiration for his art. I share with Kipling his love of Sussex by the sea. Its one of the most beautiful counties in England. It has a homeliness. When I drive down the A23 and catch my first glimpse of the Downs at Handcross, I just know Im home. Theres something about the Sussex landscape that draws me back time and again.
David rarely works in front of his chosen scene. Instead, he works from an amalgam of photographs back at his studio though his style isnt simply photo-realist. He works in watercolour, using vivid colour to draw out the brightness and contrast in a scene.
Some might argue that his Sussex views are chocolate box and idealised, but he is unapologetic. Yes, and why not? If people like it and it makes them feel good, so be it. Electricity pylons and wind turbines are ruining the countryside, so I remove them. Theres a large appetite for nostalgia, he says, and he is very happy to feed it.
But initially not everybody cottoned on to Davids mass-market appeal. When, back in the early 1990s, he showed his images to a well-known Sussex retailer, he says they offered such a modest fee for the rights to reproduce his artwork that he rejected it on the spot.
Though financial gain has never been his main imperative, he knew his images were more saleable than that because he had sold two thirds of his artwork in three days when he staged his first ever exhibition in Lewes. So instead, he set up his own publishing business, Tudor House Designs, and began producing prints and greetings cards, offering them to post offices, garden centres and National Trust outlets across Sussex.
At the height of his success, David was running two art galleries in Cuckfield and Lewes, as well as a framing shop, and employing nine people at his large warehouse in Bolney. He had also built up a devoted following, who snapped up his designs as soon as he issued them. My cards must have been sent to every known region of the world and its great to be able to produce something that people want to share with others, he says.
But although he still produces 30 new designs a year, he has scaled down his business. If I really pushed, I know it would take off even further. I took some of my work to the States recently and it sold in one day. But to expand Id have to work every hour there is and what would be the point in that?
So instead, hell just pootle on, perfecting his technique... and finding yet more hidden corners of Sussex to share with his many admirers.
If you would like to find out more about the work of David Holden, or purchase his prints or greetings cards, visit www.cuckfieldgallery.com