Friday, 9 March 2012

Rian's Burlesque...

Here are some fabulous illustrations from a forthcoming book by Rian Hughes. He's written an introduction about how the book came about and here's an excerpt from it...

I’m sure that, like me, you’re wary of unsolicited emails offering strange and seductive promises. But, sometimes, curiosity can get the better of you. That’s how adventures usually begin.

This is how I find myself using a large Rowney sketchbook to carve my way through the evening crowds around Piccadilly Circus, following Eros’ arrow up to the narrow streets of Soho, London’s notorious sleaze quarter. Though now gentrified by hip bars, advertising agencies and fancy restaurants, there still exists the occasional corner that the new broom has missed.
Above Shafesbury Avenue, just off Old Compton Street, I find an entrance under a gold and black awning. A man in a boxy dinner jacket with a neck wider than his forehead sees me approach and, with the uncanny sixth street-sense all bouncers seem to possess, decides I don’t look like trouble. It’s probably the sketchbook. A red silk rope is lifted and a panelled Victorian door that has been repainted so many times it no longer properly fits its frame is held open.

Once inside the tiny lobby, I part a heavy velvet drape and enter a dimly-lit bar. Candles dance in dimpled red glass holders on darkly polished tabletops. A pinch-cheeked barman from some distant and underdeveloped country is polishing glasses by the cadaverous light of a glass-fronted refigerator. “Is this the right place for the life drawing?”, I ask, trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about. He stops what he’s doing, raises his eyes to look at me, then, with an absolute economy of motion, imperceptibly shifts his head back towards the function room at the rear. I thank him and press on.

I pass small knots of people with their heads bent together conspiratorially, entwined couples on leather settees whose arms are worn through to the coarse fabric musculature underneath. The wood panelling and heavy gilt-framed mirrors give way to a shabbier, loucher decor. To the left is a pair of unpainted chipboard saloon doors with a handwritten sign taped to them. This is it.

I’m late, and the class has already started. In a solo spotlight, on an ornate cast-iron stool, sits a burlesque dancer dressed (barely) in vintage, tasselled and feathered and frozen in an angular dancer’s pose. Around her attentively sit a ring of silent acolytes, bent in supplication over the drawing boards propped on their knees or the edge of a barstool. I find a space, and set out my materials. The girl next to me is drawing with one finger on her iPad, but there’s no pixels for me here, not tonight — just the nostalgic analogue art-school mess of graphite, brush and Indian ink. It’s as if I’m a student again.

The other attendees, I discover, are illustrators, artists and hobbyists, many drawn from Soho’s local animation and special effects houses, and their work turns out to be of a very high standard indeed.

Intermittently attending over a couple of years, I accumulate several hundred drawings, and eventually decide to scan them, clean them up and produce, via the wonders of online digital print, a small black-and-white book. This sells a few dozen copies, mainly to friends in illustration and comics. Image’s Eric Stevenson eventually sees a copy, and very kindly offers to publish it. Now with the option of colour, I revisit some of the drawings and develop others into finished digital illustrations in Illustrator or Photoshop. Here they are.

I hope I don’t physically resemble Toulouse Lautrec, but like him, and more by accident than by design, I’ve produced a particular record of London’s burlesque scene, frozen — just like that model — in a timeless vintage now.

Rian Hughes
Kew Gardens, 2011

Rian's first burlesque black-and-white book Soho Dives, Soho Divas can be bought here...

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