THE MOST TALKED ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ARTIST at the moment has to be Hackney born Lincoln Townley. Described as the new Warhol, the 46-year-old has taken the art world by storm in just four years.
In Los Angeles, where he is artist in residence at BAFTA, they can’t get enough of his work – his painting of the late David Bowie recently sold for £300,000. Celebrity fans include Hollywood bad boys Charlie Sheen and Nick Nolte, and Sir Michael Caine.
The artist is about to tour Australia with his latest collection, Surprise, which he describes as “a visual depiction of the darkness man has to conquer to gain ultimate iconic stature.”
Celebrity fans include Hollywood bad boys Charlie Sheen and Nick Nolte, and Sir Michael Caine
Townley readily admits he was turned down 93 times before he had a picture accepted. The old school art world still raises an eyebrow when it comes to his work – or, as he puts it, “they can’t stand me.”
His paintings are often dark, with twisted, writhing images that have their origins in his own pain and past problems with addiction. But the realism of his work has celebrity clients lining up to sit for him.
“I paint them as themselves, not their character,” Townley tells me. His series Icons last year not only captured the celebrity world but also his own demons.
The artist’s semi-autobiographical book The Hunger, released four years ago, tells the story of his battle with addiction and is soon to be made into a movie.
But the man I meet on a sunny day in Soho is far cry from the coke-snorting, sex-obsessed monster portrayed in the book. The reformed Townley is quiet, reflective and charming; it’s hard to imagine him overturning tables and starting fights in bars or organising private sex parties for bankers.
You are about to tour Australia. Do you think the your work will be as enthusiastically received there as it has been in America?
There seems to be a lot of excitement about my visit ever since I painted one of Australia’s greatest actors, Geoffrey Rush. I start off in Brisbane Power House, one of the country’s premier art venues, before moving on to Sydney and Melbourne, finishing in Adelaide.
I’m being represented by The Red Sea Galley, which is based in Brisbane and Singapore. After being rejected so many times, it’s great to have them lining up to take my work.
How would you describe Surprise, the collection you are showing there?
Most of my work depicts the turbulence of descent into the darkest depths of the unconscious mind, where form and structure dissipate to leave the raw, intense struggle for survival. A powerful visual depiction of the darkness man must conquer to gain ultimate iconic stature. It includes paintings of Kylie Minogue, Kate Moss and Michael Caine.
I understand Sir Michael Caine is a fan of your work?
He has been kind enough to attend my shows with his gorgeous wife Shakira at Somerset House and the Saatchi Gallery. In my portrait of him, the present Michael Caine shares the canvas with his younger self, yet it is the older man who dominates the painting, with the young actor looming as a vanishing presence over his shoulder.
I decided to deliver the painting to him personally and he showed me part of his collection. It included the iconic Campbell soup can painting that he was shrewd enough to buy back in the sixties, when he used to hang out with Warhol.
Michael said Warhol brought a lot of change to the art world back in those days. What was most flattering to me was when he unveiled my painting, he took one look at it and declared that I was ‘the next Warhol’.
The paintings in my Icons series look at celebrity and everything attached to it. People often ask what the lines across people’s faces are on some of my work – it’s about the barrier between the viewer and the actual subject.
Who inspired you to start painting?
When I was a boy my grandfather Bob Townley, who worked in an armoury during the war but also loved to paint, would get me to look at apple for ages then he’d say ‘now take it away and paint it’. He would do this continually till I could paint it perfectly. He had an acute understating of how the mind worked.
Then at the age of 12 or 13 I suddenly stopped painting. I had done so much of it I just didn’t want to carry on. I became more interested in my friends and I hated school so didn’t want to continue it there.
You’re a big fan of Francis Bacon. The BBC documentary, A Brush with Violence, shows how his personal pain was reflected in his work – how much does your work reflect your own demons?
There is no doubt that my work reflects my own inner pain – and my strength. Painting can be very cathartic. In my late teens I started painting as a way to reflect and heal and I carried on while I was working at Stringfellows.
I don’t like to make excuses but when your father drops dead in front of you when you’re a teenager, it’s bound to have a trigger effect.
Strangely enough, the body of my artwork started once I became clean. Meeting my wife Denise Welch was the major anchor for me, as I am to her.
But there is no doubt painting took the pain out of my head and I was able to lay down my feelings on canvas instead of numbing them through alcohol and drugs.
You married actress Denise Welch four years ago in Portugal. How did she and others feel about your change of career?
Denise was 110 percent behind me. Some would ask ‘is this right for you, for us?’ but she just wanted me to be happy. There were people questioning my decision – the passive aggressive brigade, as we call them. They’d say things like: ‘Bless you, I don’t care what other people are saying, you get on with painting if you really want to’.
Changing career in your forties is still not very British and there will always be those who hope you will fail. There’s always plenty of Schadenfreude around. Luckily, I have an army of supporters and loyal friends and it’s them I concentrate on.
You had a PR and marketing role when you were at Stringfellows. How much do you put down to your success to PR?
Well, I would be crazy to deny that PR comes into play with most successful artists and performers. But you also need tenacity, great belief in yourself – and talent – as well as the ability not to take NO for an answer.
You are a huge hit in Los Angeles, where you’re the artist in residence at BAFTA. Do you ever see yourself living there?
Denise and I already spilt our time between here and Los Angeles, which we both love and have agents there. So we see it as our second home in a way. We both have masses of work in the UK, and family commitments, so it is nice to balance the two.
Will Denise becoming to Australia with you?
Sadly not. She is fulfilling one of her dreams by performing at the London Palladium. She’s playing Mrs Otter in Wind in the Willows and the show clashes with Australia. I am so pleased for her. We support each other fully in all that we do.
If you had to write a letter to the younger you, what would it say?
Believe in yourself do not ever take no for an answer.
Lincoln’s work can be seen at the Maddox Gallery Mayfair Maddox Gallery – Mayfair’s Art Gallery
Lincoln Towny with Steven Smith