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An Exclusive Interview With Edward Bell

January 2nd, 2020 | by Nick
An Exclusive Interview With Edward Bell

Do you remember a guy that’s been?

David Bowie

Ashes To Ashes, 1980

One was an emergent artist who had started a career of photographer only a few years before for some fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. The other was a musician at the top of his career, looking for someone who could create a new kind of album cover. The LP would have been defined as his last great one, for about twenty years, at least. The first painting exhibition of the photographer was the occasion to meet each other. London, 1980. Neal Street Gallery. Edward Bell initially did not recognise David Bowie at the private view of his Larger Than Life exhibition. Duffy suggested to David to go there, and take a look. This was the starting point for a collaboration and a friendship. The two men began to see each other in London, listening to music and chatting about art, and Edward introduced the new friend to his very first art auction.

Bell has been probably the only one visual collaborator to work on two very different projects, in Bowie’s career, quite far in time and space. In 1980 he ideated in London one of the most brilliant album covers of Bowie’s discography: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).


Ten years after he accidentally met David in Venice and briefly later was asked to realise the cover for the album Tin Machine 2. Edward was again completely free to work on the new project. On a evening in Los Angeles, where he reunited with a very different Bowie, Bell’s talent led him to ideate the first album cover where David himself was, for the very first time in his discography, graphically, totally absent. The image of four identical Kouroi, encountered perfectly and enthusiastically the approval of the customer, who was still hiding in the new project of a band that would never completely meet the taste of the audience.

From that moment Edward Bell seemed to disappear, at least to the eyes of the fans, but surely the iconic importance of Scary Monsters (the original huge painting was proudly shown in the recent and widely acclaimed David Bowie Is exhibition) increased in the collective imagination, surrounded by a considerable body of works that included some singles, several polaroids, a compilation and probably the best cover for an official calendar, the famous painting entitled Glamour. Actually, he had a constant friendship with Bowie, by letters and phone calls. In a time in which the Net was still to exist, Edward wrote to a secret address in Switzerland and David used to call him for long conversations, often in the middle of the night.

My interest for Bell completely rose two years ago, when he published an excellent book of his work dedicated to David Bowie. Unmade Up from Unicorn Publishing. David Bowie was passed away some months before. Everything a fan wants to know about this friendship and collaboration was told in that book.

Now, you can read something new in this exclusive interview, that was incredibly granted to me by the artist himself. The only request by this exquisite and kind man, who still works somewhere in the countryside of Wales, was to realise it by a traditional letter. I wholeheartedly accepted. A couple of weeks ago I received a letter with five beautiful pages gracefully handwritten and I deliver here some precious recalls and interesting details about a time in which a god musician used to translate his musical intents also through the talent of an earthly, little weird and unconventional, but brilliant, painter.

Mr. Bell, you are a painter but also a photographer. In the past you realised some artistic polaroids and sometimes your paintings were mainly derived from the photos you took.  Do you think that one or another technique has limitations to your way of expression?

I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting. I find interesting for example the blur of movement, the unusual cropping or the red eye. All of this frees me from tedious technicalities when I take a photo.

How much your studies in art, graphic design and photography at the College do you think have helped you to have success in your career?

My time at art school gave me just ‘time’: the art one must be born with. Most of my tutors were either blinkered, dogmatic, bullying or simply stupid.


I read that initially Duffy suggested to David Bowie to watch your works, and later you two met for the first time in London, in 1980. How did you manage the influence of an artist so famous?

Duffy was all charm when I first met him. He didn’t reveal his agenda and he tried to use me to enhance one of his photographs. But I listened only to Bowie who said: “It’s only yours”, with the sole restriction: his fair hair had to be painted as though hennaed, because in America he was known as ‘the red haired bi-sexual’.


The result is – in my opinion – one of the best brilliant and unusual album covers in Bowie’s discography: Scary Monsters. The picture is an excellent painting derived from a photo you took of David, but it got out from a quite troubled relationship with Duffy, who tried to impose one of his pics, but you artistically englobed it, ragged, in your work. What was David’s first reaction?

On seeing the completed artwork, that was 3ft x 6ft, Bowie took one look and without hesitation he said: “Great, that’s it!”



I particularly like also the titles written by brush: very elegant and uncommon to see on a discographical release. Did you decide to write them on your own?

The writing, the image, whatever, David gave me free rein…


You also took the fabulous photo of David firstly appeared on the single of Fashion, and briefly later utilized for the collection The Best of Bowie. Could you tell me anything about this pic?

The photograph for the single Fashion was the very first I took, even before the costume and the make-up. I wanted a straight forward portrait. Bowie was fine about that and we left the studio, so that I could use daylight rather than electronic flash. All natural, un-made up.

You also realised the poster titled Glamour. When exactly? Could you please tell me something about the process to do it?

Glamour used a transparency from the album cover photo session, whilst on the way to restyling the whole image. I remember being anxious to catch it before the long tail of ash tipped off the end of his cigarette. I projected and painted it for myself, but when Bowie visited my studio and saw it, he immediately bought it subsequently used it for posters and that year’s calendar cover.

After the release of Scary Monsters you suddenly become a very required artist, painting covers for Hazel O’Connor and other musicians from the New Wave during the ‘80s. Did you consider that Art or just a job?

Whatever image I produced, for whoever, I had to please me both aesthetically and intellectually – which on occasion led to differences of opinion with art directors – and a certain number of rejections.


Many year later he would have his first exhibition. Did you see it in Cork Street, 1995? What is your opinion about his paintings?

I thought Bowie’s Cork Street exhibition was good and showed that if he had devoted himself totally to painting he could have become very good. He first mentioned hoping to have an exhibition when we first met. His idea then was to show under an assumed name. I think he should have done so, and got better, with impartial reviews.


I noticed that you frequently depicted Bowie in an hagiographic way. Are you a believer or it’s just because of your studies and influences? Why the figure of Bowie is so closely painted as Christ?

Some have deemed the icon images as sacrilegious, though in fact I am a believer. They were done rather ‘tongue in cheek’, making the point that, in this day and age, people are still searching for, and labelling their all human heroes, God.

Briefly later he called you to realise the cover art for Tin Machine 2. I think you are the only collaborator to have worked for him on two completely different projects so distant in time. What is your idea about it?

Tin Machine was panned. His fans did not want him to elude them in that way: the music was not so bad, in fact the initial tapes that I listened to were less gritty, angry and aggressive. I think they were better.

Your first thought when he passed away. In your book are revealed many series of paintings dedicated to him. Have they been realised expressly for the book or are they a demonstration of a compelling inspiration from him?

When David died memories of startling clarity were triggered and I was moved to put them on paper before they faded – this simultaneously led to a whole crop of related images to illustrate what I was attempting to pin down and evaluate… to understand. The idea to publish came later.


Any regrets about your work relationship and friendship?

I have no regrets. Once we were both vain, immature and insecure in our own ways. At the time this caused both the friction and the attraction.


Any projects for exhibitions or new projects? I know that in the second part of your career your paintings are more focused on landscapes.

I live ‘from hand to mouth’ and I spend time away from my studio, exploring the inner landscape, more often than the outer nowadays.


You can buy Edward’s excellent book ‘Unmade Up: Recollections of a Friendship with David Bowie’ below…


Interview conceived and realised by Matteo Tonolli, exclusively for David Bowie News, © 2019.

Thanks to Jonathan and Dory Ross, Suzanne and everyone at Regent Street Studio.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

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