A new book and exhibition about Teesside artist David Mulholland is being unveiled next week. Chris Webber finds out about the South Bank lad who shunned fame to paint life and love by the Tees

DAVID MULHOLLAND is a true child of Teesside, not just because he happened to be born in working class South Bank, but because the paintings which made his name could only have come from someone inspired by that industrial, urban world, surrounded as it is by wildly beautiful countryside.

David, a father-of-five, died in 2005 having never gained the national fame many predicted for the young lad who left South Bank with few qualifications, but who ended up at the Royal College of Art.

His was a classic 1960s story. The wildhaired, post-war working-class lad who goes to London and makes a splash, turning a few conventions on their head on the way. His student and post student exhibitions in the early 1970s won him some serious attention and his first big exhibition in Middlesbrough won highly favourable reviews.

But, even then, even as the Savile Row-suited young artist cut a dash through the capital, David was longing for the home life he needed for inspiration.

His friend, Pete McCarthy, says as much in his beautifully produced coffee-table book David Mulholland, Painter, which devotes 17 pages of biography to David before highlighting his work. In the book he quotes one of David’s tutors at the Royal College of Art, Bateson Mason.

“It was clear that London could not contain him for long,” says Bateson, clearly recalling his talented student. Bateson describes how David would stay in London for a few weeks and they had home always returning with a “mass of new work, seeing his subject at times with great delicacy and at others with roaring outrage”.

The words and photographs about David’s early South Bank life tell of a close-knit world of family and community. It’s easy to understand how he would be drawn back, apart of the visual feast of contrasts offered by such an industrial landscape and its people surrounded by such rural beauty.

THERE’S a photograph in the book of the Victoria Street Boy’s School Art Club, also showing Len Tabner, who went on to forge a successful artistic career. They were just two of what was a famously talented art club. Later, we see images of trendy David with his magnificent moustache with his proud, suited steelworker dad and mum, wearing the kind of thick glasses and sensible coat no longer seen.

There’s the men playing darts in the club; crazy-haired David standing out among his short-haired, suited, Bryl-creamed contemporaries.

A flash of 70s colour in a black-andwhite 50s world.

Seeing those real-life photographs of happy South Bank people in the boom years you feel David’s pain and outrage when you turn to some of his paintings, a few years down the line, showing broken, almost certainly jobless, people in the club and street. In tune with the times a political message started to creep in about industrial decline around the late 1970s.

By then, David had stopped exhibiting and become a teacher. He never did win national acclaim and riches, which could, clearly have been his.

Peter McCarthy, an owner of much of his friend’s work ponders what happened to David and his career but resolutely rejects the easy journalist tag of “tragedy as young potential unfulfilled”.

“I first met him in 1969,” remembers Peter.

“He was at college and I was living next door to his auntie in South Bank and met him many, many times when he was back home while I was an apprentice at the steelworks. He was definitely going places. He was this positive, outgoing person, bound for success. He was gregarious, engaging, he stood out.”

Peter says he was directly inspired by David’s early success to take up studies himself and he abandoned his steelworker career to eventually teach sociology and social policy at university.

But while Peter’s career took off in a straightforward way, David’s veered off the conventional course.

“He did have another exhibition in 1978 in Guisborough, but I think he became disillusioned with all that. He didn’t enjoy it. He got married, had kids, went to be a teacher. That was a sacrifice he made to family life. He just wanted to be a painter, it’s all he’d wanted since he was ten.”

David’s marriage broke up, as did his second marriage a few years later. The painter’s life became a bit more ramshackle after he gave up teaching after 15 years. He lived in a caravan at Runswick Bay and spent more and more time in the pub. Stories abound of him giving paintings away in direct payment to hotels in return for a bed for the night.

But Peter points to the sheer quality of the work and argues David’s career was on his own terms and was a success. He says: “I think he could have been more famous and so on, although you never know. But he needed to be inspired. He couldn’t deal very well with commissions. He wanted to be free. He didn’t market himself. He was happy just painting and maybe making a bit of a living from that and his teacher’s pension. He was always very well known wherever he lived. He was one of those characters everyone knew.”

He also rejects the idea that David’s career was knocked back by drinking. “It wasn’t the drink, it wasn’t like that. It was the pubs, it was more the company, he liked to talk and listen to people in that environment.”

David’s work changed. His paintings began to show the heartbreaking decline of South Bank, industry and the effect that had on people in the 1980s. Later still, he created fetching images of beautiful North Yorkshire. Those paintings are some of his most conventional and successfulworks, although Peter believes he did them simply to make a few pounds, knowing they’d sell.

He didn’t give up on the political side, painting images of pain caused by violence in Bosnia and the attack on the twin towers. Amid the beauty was the pain.

How much is his work worth? “Nobody knows.

He usually sold them in the pub for undisclosed sums. People who bought them don’t sell them.

Money is not the point.”

Perhaps the point of David’s life and talent is best expressed in his own words on his own gravestone in his beloved Staithes. The epitaph reads: “David Mulholland, MA, RCA, Painter. Let it be known that the person who looks on this stone and hinterland, I love you.”

  •  The exhibition of David Mulholland’s work opens at The Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough on Wednesday, October 10. The book, which costs £15, and is designed and printed by the hpmgroup, will be available there.
  •  Another of David’s great friends, Tom French, has a website devoted to the painter at davidmulholland.co.uk