At the Races with equestrian artists, David and Adrian Dent
PUBLISHED: 14:19 09 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:08 11 June 2015
From his working-class roots in South Wales to being one of our most sought-after equestrian artists, David Dent has found the winning formula
How our teachers form the adults we are to become.
The responsibility that lies in their hands to nurture, inspire and mould young minds, guiding them towards what will hopefully be a fulfilling career, is one that is impossible to put too much emphasis on. Apathy in teachers breeds apathy in students; enthusiasm and passion create the stars of tomorrow.
Fortunately for a young David Dent, growing up in Cwmbran, South Wales, both he and his brother, Adrian – six years his junior – had the same inspirational art teacher at the comprehensive school they attended. Now in his 50s, David is one half of much lauded ‘Dents Originals Fine Art’, producing stunning contemporary equine art in the brothers’ own distinctive styles.
The boys had a blissfully happy upbringing, sharing their father’s love of nature, art and horse racing.
“Our father worked for ICI Fibres in Pontypool,” says David, “and his job was to change the reels of nylon. When the reels got near the end there was paper on them and he had to swap for a fresh reel. So he used to bring home these huge rolls of paper which he’d roll out on the table at home, give us pens and encourage us to draw horses.”
When David moved away to go to college, he also briefly drifted away from equestrian art as he was being tutored in different styles. However, when his dad was diagnosed with cancer with only an expected six months to live, he came home to look after him. The brothers were determined to make their father’s remaining days as enjoyable as possible and so they took him racing as often as they could, and also to the bookies every day. And this is what re-stimulated David’s interest in equestrian art.
“When he died, in 1984,” David explains, with obvious deep affection for his father, “he left behind this huge gap and so, desperate to keep his spirit alive, Adrian and I concentrated on racing art.” The brothers went on to exhibit at Chepstow Racecourse and it quickly became a professional concern.
David has incredibly fond memories of his father; as well as taking the two boys to the races, he also took them fishing where the young naturalists discovered great crested newts – with their “fire bellies and black spots” – and now mourns the damage done to the canals of his youth with pollutants. “Those canals that were teeming with great crested newts have been ruined by urban development, and I think it’s ironic that a Labour government destroyed all that wildlife but kicks off about fox hunting. It really annoys me.”
David is a firm believer that our country pursuits are what helps to protect our environment, though he does realise that the hunting issue is an emotive one. He also feels very passionate about his Welsh childhood and how the things he valued in his youth have been destroyed by those wanting to make a few quid. He tells of his anger at Newport’s Chartist mural being demolished to make way for a £100 million shopping development. “They were trying to get a conservation order on it, but it was ‘mysteriously’ damaged before they could…”
Despite the age gap between the brothers, they had a huge amount in common and would enjoy catching the newts, putting them in big jam jars and sketching them before returning them to the water. David recalls how, aged 10 and his brother just four, his father would take them to the pub, sit them up on a bench with a shandy and packet of crisps while listening to the comings and goings of the bookies next door: “The door was always open and you could hear the races – it was the time of Persian War and horses like that, so it made quite an impression. We’d put a small amount of our pocket money on the horses – sixpence, something like that – and our dad would pay us out of the money. We always seemed to win. I have very fond memories of that time.”
David and Adrian are best known for their traditional horseracing images, but David has also done a series of ‘Racing Noir’ paintings which combine his twin loves of horses and glamorous women in vintage clothes. “I’ve always loved film noir, German Expressionism and vintage fashions. Why don’t women look like that any more?” he laughs. One series of his that is particularly striking is his incredibly moving set of paintings depicting the Great War, called ‘They Gave Their All’.
“My grandfather – my father’s father – fought in the First World War and was shot in the leg with a Dum-Dum bullet. If he hadn’t been taken prisoner by the Germans, he’d have definitely lost his leg; a German field doctor removed the bullet and saved his leg. This war shouldn’t have been fought; there was nothing inherently wrong with either the German or British troops, but both the horses and the men were the fodder of war.”
Ah, horses. Now that really is where David’s passions lie. He is often to be seen at Cheltenham and Chepstow racecourses selling his wonderful paintings and prints, and will of course be there this month for the Festival. So, which, I ask, are the horses he has felt most inspired by and privileged to have painted? In a heartbeat he responds, “Right now, it has to be The Giant Bolster. He’s been placed in the last three Gold Cups and I really hope he’s going to win this year.”
Now, I’m not a gambling woman, but this year I might just have a flutter.
Cheltenham Festival runs from March 10-13. Visit cheltenham.thejockeyclub.co.uk
Meeting The Giant Bolster
Every now and again you come into contact with a creature you know is special. There’s a certain glint in the eye, the way it holds its head, just the very presence of it; and that’s the experience I had meeting The Giant Bolster recently.
David Dent has previously painted the racehorse – ten years old this month and owned by Simon Hunt – so we arranged to meet at trainer David Bridgwater’s stables, near Stow-on-the-Wold, where David is working on some charcoal sketches in preparation for a large-scale painting. ‘Sammy’, as he’s affectionately known by his many fans (he has his own Facebook page, for goodness sake) and all at the training yard, is something of a star and has finished third, fourth and second in the last three runnings of the blue riband chase at Cheltenham Festival, so there are high hopes for him at this month’s Gold Cup.
And, if contentment is a recipe for success, then The Giant Bolster is sure to shine, for David Bridgwater’s yard is indeed a happy place to be. As he cools down back at the stables after stretching his thoroughbred legs on the gallops, one of the dogs reaches up on hind legs to greet him, the goats mingle in the yard with sheep adopted from Adam Henson’s nearby farm… and, well, all is right with the world.