All By Myself: Discovering the Real David Cobley Behind the Portraits

As featured in England’s West Country Life Magazine and the Western Daily Press…

David Cobley Western Daily Thursday newsflash 

All By Myself – David Cobley – West Country Life – Western Daily Press

 Royal-portrait painter David Cobley gives me some clues about his famous person’s portrait to be unveiled in London’s National Portrait Gallery next month. I talk to him about his appearance on BBC2’s Show Me The Monet show and his experiences in Japan…

English portrait and figure painter David Cobley is on a mission of self-discovery. He tells me “I am interested in what it means to be alive and am fascinated by how we behave towards one another. My studio paintings explore something of what is it to be a painter, and my nudes explore something of what it is to be naked and on one’s own.” It is perhaps David’s anthropological fascination that allows him to capture the essence of key national figures from all over the world so brilliantly, including President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and HRH the Princess Royal. When David was commissioned by the Inner Temple to paint HRH Princess Anne, the style in his representation of the Princess was said to reveal her “strikingly relaxed” side, showing that David knows just how to captivate the spirit of a personality, bringing out their personal and private side, something the public very much enjoy seeing in celebrities. Furthermore, David’s portrait of the nation’s much-loved comedian Ken Dodd OBE secured him a permanent spot in the National Portrait Gallery. David has also exhibited at the Royal Portrait Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bath and Messums in London. And, his successes as a professional painter do not end there. David was elected a member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, The Royal West of England Academy and the New English Art Club.

David’s recent appearance on BBC 2’s new art series Show Me The Monetallowed him to promote a gridded work of 81 self-portraits, quirky in style and busily complex. The story he shared with the show’s Hanging Committee was a personal one and for the first time ever on Show Me The Monet, it stirred a heated debate amongst the three art critics, notorious for their harsh criticism on sometimes the most professional of paintings. However, it granted him a place in the Royal College of Art’s sale. David tells me “My work is largely about what it is to be human, and I have used myself a lot in my work because I am the human being I know best and I am readily available as a model.”

Upon seeing his All By Myself piece, I instantly fell in love it, not only because of its multi-stylistic features but because it is every art historian’s dream-painting. It encompasses so many different époques, but you also get drawn in to the game of guessing who’s artistic styles Cobley is using to represent himself in different ways: 80 of his icons within each square are produced in the style of a different artist. The 81st icon in the very centre of the piece is David’s style itself: it distinguishes itself from the surrounding icons in his fixed, wide-eyed gaze. I like the complexity to the piece; it makes you think and it certainly is the work of a master.

All By Myself by David Cobley. 81 self-portraits. 81 different styles

All By Myself is clearly a self-study and this subjective exploration makes me want to get to know David more to help him come to an answer to the complex question we have all asked ourselves at some point in our lives: Who am I?

“I was never very confident in who I was as a painter and this was an attempt to address that. Six months after completing the painting I felt free from my fixation with style.” David explains. “It explores the question of identity. The artists I include are those whose work I admire and who have influenced me. Those closest to the centre have influenced me more than those nearer the edges.”

The human condition of exploring multi-faceted dimensions to one’s personality is wonderfully depicted here in a literal fashion. By placing himself under the spotlight of self-analysis, I feel David has cleverly expressed this in the plentiful total of 81 styles. Is he likening himself to each artist’s characters himself? I feel that this turning point in his artistic career actually shows David in a vulnerable light, not to mention self-critical. David reveals to me: “I am working on another large piece that will eventually contain hundreds of figures explores this theme more fully: in fact, you can see the way it is developing on my Facebook page.”

As we discuss some of his mediums and genres, David explains why he paints nudes: “The human form is complex and beautiful, and has been the principal subject matter for artists throughout history.” Artists such as Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by primitive styles and the freedom nudism would bring with it. Take Henri Matisse’s La Danse from 1909 for example. In that primitive sense, David explains “We are the naked ape and in our naked state we are all exposed and vulnerable. We feel vulnerable and in that state somehow we are all equal.” “I love shapes and the shape that the body makes but I also love colour and I love the way the colour of the skin is enhanced by a red background and turquoise drape.” “What drawing and painting does in a way is slow time down. Normally a person wouldn’t be sitting for as long as they’re sitting for a portrait or for a study of the nude, but they sit there for long periods of time and I am in the privileged position of being able to look at them as I study them and make drawings and paintings about them.”

The award-winning artist is now based in Bath, England. As I watch David paint, I am instantly curious about the random control of the paintbrush; what I mean by this is that he casually strikes the canvas with dabs of colour as if playing around, but then something miraculous happens between David and the canvas and his style at once emerges. Then you see the final results and it all makes perfect artistic sense. As far as Academic Training goes, David attended the Northampton College of art where he did his Foundation. He then attended Liverpool College of art but left after his first term. He was later to return to higher education at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan where he ended up exhibiting at the Metropolitan Museum in 1982. He has exhibited at the Victoria Gallery in Bath and the National Portrait Gallery whilst some of his awards include the Hunting Art Prizes (1999, 2005), the BP Portrait Award (1995), the John Player Portrait Award (1989) and the Holburne Portrait Prize (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008).

As I get to know David, he introduces me to one portrait, ‘Blues, Beer and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and his self-portrait Doubt, both oils on linen.” What immediately strikes me about these is their dramatic perspectives. In Doubt, we are looking up at David from the floor, who is staring down at us from the chair in his studio.


'Doubt' by David Cobley (166 x 166 cm) Oil on linen


David, where did your passion for painting begin?

I was given a red box of oil paints for my 11th birthday. It was the most wonderful present. I thought I might one day be able to paint like the Old Masters.

Have you always adhered to painting?

As a teenager I was torn between wanting to be a painter and a life spent serving God. It is why I dropped out of Art College, only to come back to art ten years later.

1979-1981 you emigrated to Japan and studied a degree in Comparative Culture there. Tell me about this experience.

They are too many and varied, but I recommend anyone to spend some time as a foreigner in a culture very different to one’s own. It makes you question what you do and how you think.

What got you interested in portraiture? Who’s portrait did you first paint?

Growing up I sometimes used to wonder what it would be like to be in someone else’s head. Painting portraits seemed to me to be a good way of getting to know what it was like to be someone else for a brief period. My first attempt at a serious drawing was of my Uncle Don. He is 80 now, but when I was a little boy we used to draw together, and I am very grateful for the encouragement he gave me.

The piece you brought to BBC2’s Show Me The Monet got through to the Royal College of Art’s exhibition and sale. Which 80 artists inspired you for this complex work?

I am reluctant to give you a list of all the artists because I want it to remain a mystery. It would be nice to publish a book about it along the lines of ‘Masquerade’ by Kit Williams. The first person to guess them all would win the picture itself.

Which artist inspires you most?

There are many, but Rembrandt’s humanity still cuts me to the quick.

How would you describe your painting style?

I am not interested in style, only in using what skill I have to achieve a particular result. Each painting is different and I feel free to tackle it in whatever way I please.

Blues, Beer and Rock 'n' Roll' (122 x 122 cm) by David Cobley

In Blues, Beer, Rock ‘n’ Roll where the subject is relaxing with beer in hand, blues on the vinyl and looking pensive, the perspective is taken from the ceiling above looking diagonally down. Do your perspectives have a particular significance in your work?

Everything about a painting contributes to the effect I am trying to achieve, but I am always interested in trying something new.

Have you now successfully addressed the issue of who you are as a painter?

I am clearer about what I am trying to do and it is not something that concerns me any longer. This doesn’t mean I have stopped asking questions; about the meaning of art, life, the universe and so on.

In February you started working on a piece for submission to the Threadneedle Prize, which takes place at the Mall Galleries in London, one of the largest and most valuable art prizes in the UK. Tell me about the journey of creating this piece.

I am attempting to show as many kinds of human behavior in one painting as possible. It seems to me that we are all capable of great acts of cruelty as well as of kindness, and my intention with the painting is to draw the viewer in and then confront them with a scene that forces them to question their own humanity.

What would you do with the £25,000 prize money if you won?

Put it in the bank.

You are obviously already an accomplished artist and international figure. Which ambitions do you still have that you would like to accomplish in the art world?

I think I am reasonably accomplished, but I don’t consider myself to be an international figure. I want to make a painting that is as good as Las Meninas by Velasquez or The Blind Leading the Blind by Breughel.

How would you describe yourself?

As a bit of a misfit

Did Japan’s culture have any influence on your way of thinking or your art?

In studying Japanese I discovered that there are concepts that the English language has no words for. It opened my mind to possibilities I hadn’t before considered.

Which country would you most enjoy exhibiting in?

Japan. I haven’t been back since I left in 1984 and I would love to see how it has changed during that time.

What experiences in life have shaped you most as an artist?

Dropping out of Art College had a big impact. Being an artist has been a struggle ever since.

What do you enjoy most about portrait painting?

That I can spend time in the intimate company of another human being.

How do you get your sitters to maintain the same pose?

The Stun Gun for Artists comes in very useful.

How long does the average portrait take for you to complete?

It takes as long as it takes, but usually several months. Occasionally I complete one only to start all over again because I am not happy with it.

If you could choose any celebrity in the world to paint, who would it be and why?

I don’t like the concept of celebrity or celebrity culture.  Everyone is interesting in their own way. Having said that, if I were asked to paint Kate Middleton or Barak Obama I wouldn’t say no.

Tell me about your experience painting HRH Princess Anne

It was painted at Gatcombe Park and she was an excellent sitter. As far as I know she was very pleased.

David, can you give the nation a clue about the famous personality you have painted to appear in the National Portrait Gallery next month?

He is a scientist.


David continues to exhibit his paintings in public and private collections throughout the world. His work does not come cheap. He valued his All By Myselfpiece at £100,000 at the Royal College of Art’s sale. Alas! Fear not: a full length oil portrait will only set you back a cool £20,000…and if that’s a little too pricey, you can settle for a 10 x 12 inch headshot at just £5000.


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