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Gilson Lavis: a man of many talents

Gilson Lavis: a man of many talents 1 2

[prev] …his musical career took off, the only brushes he picked up were the ones he used on his drum kit, while the only pads he worked on were those he was beating. Then, in 2007, he was out in Hungary for some dentistry work, staying in a hotel that he’d booked online and only realised how utterly awful it was when he got there. Stuck there for over a week, with nowhere to go, no heating, wi-fi and only one incomprehensible and depressing TV channel, he unsurprisingly found himself growing quite bored. What he did have though was a notepad and a biro, so, out of idleness, he knocked up a sketch of tour manager Steve Taylor from a photo he had on his laptop. ‘And I thought, you know, that’s not bad. It actually does look like him.’

When he got home, he presented the picture to Steve who was ‘so thrilled, he was just beside himself. So I was on a roll then. I sketched the band, and then their wives, and then their children, and then the road crew. We went on tour and I made this pledge to draw everybody. Which I did, every evening. And then, by the end of it all, everybody had a sketch and I was in the swing of it.’ From there, he moved on to others he’d been professionally involved with and eventually amassed so many images that he put some online. When they started to sell, he was both delighted and a little surprised. The natural progression from drawing was into painting, something that friends and fans urged him to do.

Yet, because of his love of black and white, he was initially unwilling to do so, associating painting with vibrant colours. ‘So paint in black and white, somebody suggested, and that’s when the penny dropped,’ he laughs. He acquired some brushes, acrylic paints and a canvas and, for his first effort, did a painting of his sporting hero Muhammad Ali. ‘And ever since then, I’ve been painting. I just love it. I’m very privileged that I’ve got so many people I’ve worked with during my history in the music business, that it’s almost a bottomless well.’

That well includes people such as Lulu, who he performed with both during her earlier days (when he was the drummer with The Talk of the South) and more recently when she was a guest of the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. ‘So I’ve worked with her man and boy, thus I can paint her then and now.’ Other images from his paintbrush are especially characterful captures of Keith Richards (along with other members of The Rolling Stones too), Elvis Costello, BB King, Etta James, Tom Jones and, naturally, Jools Holland himself who Gilson describes as ‘quite a tricky challenge’ to paint properly. He’s done several different versions of Eric Clapton, somebody he has an enormous appreciation for, both for his musical prowess and his life in general. The list of who he has immortalised on canvas is a lengthy one, yet there are still several he aspires to paint such as Chuck Berry and Tommy Cooper, both of whom he worked with in his pre-Squeeze days.

As well as these musical associations – some of whom have signed his work – and those who have been personal inspirations, other portraits include people he has performed for. Images of the Royal Family are part of this line-up, produced after Gilson was in the band at the Millennium Dome for the turn of the century party. His portrayal of the Duke of Edinburgh is one of his favourites, from a photo during the Queen’s birthday when he was watching a flypast. ‘I’m also rather proud of the Queen’s hat,’ he jokes of the portrait he produced of her. Although he occasionally paints from memory, he usually likes to make use of photographs so that the finished article doesn’t turn into a caricature. He’s never had anybody sit live for him, because he likes a natural, unguarded look that it’s impossible to capture during more formal sessions.

Away from the worlds of the rich and the famous, he’s also turned his hand to a more serious series of conflict images, representing people during times of trouble and struggle. Gilson’s trademark minimalist treatment, in blunt black and white, adds an even greater sense of melancholy and anguish to the scenes. Gilson’s portraits are exclusively in monochrome because he doesn’t feel the need for any colour. ‘I just don’t really have any desire for it; the way I try to paint, my pictures wouldn’t work in colour. The black and white, the shadows, the drama…if I was to add colour to that, I’d have to put in more information such as clothes and backgrounds. And for me, it’s not about that. It’s about the faces and hands. There’s a lot of personality in those, and that’s what I love. I really don’t want to spend all day painting in a Paisley pattern on a tie!’ As he might have to for a portrait of Rod Stewart…

Given that his music keeps him so busy – 2014 is already packed with touring (both around the UK and abroad), recording and television – it’s amazing that he also finds time to create artworks at all. A typical painting takes about 24 hours to complete, although it does depend on the subject and how driven Gilson is. But he tries to find two to three hours a day to dedicate to painting if possible. And with his roll-call of musical collaborations ever-increasing, he’s likely to be kept very busy for a long time to come – both behind his drum kit and in front of his canvasses.

The Norman Cross Gallery’s spring exhibition of Gilson Lavis portraits launches on March 14 with a private view for invited guests, and continues into the summer. For more information, please ring 01733 245189, email or see The gallery, situated at Norman House, London Road, Norman Cross, Peterborough, PE7 3TB, is open from 11am to 4pm on Saturdays, and other times by appointment. Gilson Lavis’ own website is at

Gilson Lavis: a man of many talents 1 2

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