I’m standing in a fairly ordinary kitchen in north London while Mr Howard Tangye makes me a cup of tea in an ordinary Arsenal cup. But as I follow him and the scent of white spirit to the first floor, the mood changes.
The journey to the art world of Tangye begins with the painting of the stairs with gold-colored stairs; stop by a decoupage panel with patterned papers and pass a hanging display of antique dolls, glass ball and a disco ball; before it culminates in Tangye’s studio – a Victorian space with a window frame full of creative clutter.
“Everything happens in this room,” says 72-year-old Tangye, a former tutor and head of women’s clothing design at Central Saint Martins, whose students include John Galliano, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane. But what happens in Tangye’s studio – the tables full of oil pastels, pencils and treats, and the walls covered with newspaper clippings and art cards – is not fashion design, but figurative drawing. This is a practice he started half a century ago after moving from London to London at the age of 18 and enrolling himself as a fashion student at Saint Martins.
“The fashion school had a very strong drawing department and I loved the classes,” says Tangye, dressed in an everyday painting, which happened to be the vintage Yohji Yamamoto. “I also loved the creative aspect of fashion design, and I still do.” After graduating, he went to New York with a scholarship to study life painting, “but figurative art was really rejected in the ’70s.” He later started his own fashion label, but he hated the business side of it. ‘When I was offered a teaching role at Saint Martins, I thought it was great. I could learn and make my own drawing. It was my perfect life. And this is what I have been doing for over 30 years. ”
Today, his work, a series of linear yet colorful drawings of men and women, is striking for its elegant yet energetic style. He dotted pieces on donkeys and dotted them in the house, but also stacked them in planters as part of a mission to archive his work that began in 2019. add a few hundred more. “When I retired six years ago, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he adds. “I just went on full time, which was great.”
By flipping through his portraits, the back catalog reveals some well-known names: Wes Gordon, put the now creative director of Carolina Herrera with him, as did the recent Chloé collaborator Julie Verhoeven, Zac Posen and the late Richard Nicoll. His image is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Former student Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen, has chosen to showcase Tangye’s drawing process a movie last year – and the V&A has 56 of his artworks – but outside the fashion world, Tangye’s name remains relatively anonymous. His work was rarely exhibited in galleries and he kept his passion largely to himself.
“He is a highly regarded artist, given the influence he has exerted on a generation of fashion icons,” said Rupert Martin, a former sales and research associate at a private gallery who is now the studio manager of Tangye. . ‘I sat for him a few times, and each time it was quite magical. We fell a little in love with each other, I think. But when I received the files from his archive, it was like getting the keys to a museum – a whole life’s work just sitting in his studio. He worked very quietly on this. I thought, ‘More people should see it.’ ”
Tangye has never been motivated by the recognition. “When it happens, it happens,” he says. ‘And if that’s not the case, it’s not going to stop me from working. I just want to do it for myself. I was never good at being part of a group or following fashion. I just had to create my own thing. I was inspired by a lot of artists and designers, but I knew I did not want to be like them. The process just comes out of what I want to do. ”
Tangye’s work is often compared to Egon Schiele – the Austrian expressionist painter who was a protégé of Gustav Klimt. “It’s a big compliment,” he says. “His work is extraordinary. But I was never consciously inspired by him. If you place one of his drawings next to mine, they are not like each other at all. While Schiele’s images are skewed for the erotic, even pornographic, Tangye’s slender figure is more often dressed and has a more romantic atmosphere. He owes his line drawing more to Matisse – ‘the flowing, continuous way he uses the line. I love the aspect of his work. It’s a bit like drawing on the pants’ seat. He also finds inspiration in abstract paintings. “I like the philosophy behind it. An artist I visit regularly Agnes Martin, ”He says of the American painter who pursued artistic perfection via her large-scale grids and repetitive stripes.
When it comes to who Tangye signs with, his sitters must ‘be willing to take part in the work’, he says. ‘Yes, there’s something about the way they look, but it’s really about how they move, how they are in themselves. These are people with their own dreams and ambitions, which makes it very interesting. It was, for example, Zac Posen‘s energy that captivated Tangye. “He’s a very animated person – creative and itchy to go on and do things,” says Tangye. ‘Unfortunately, when he sat down for me, he could not sit still! I made four or five very quick drawings and that was it. ”
West Gordon, on the other hand, was much less hyperactive. Tangye remembers how he moves away while posing. Gordon says: ‘I sat on the couch in his studio for a long afternoon, half awake while Carla Bruni’s album Someone told me played on a loop while Howard stood at the corner with his ass and drew his beautiful lines. One of the portraits of me now hangs in my office, a daily reminder of London, Howard and Saint Martins.
One of Tangye’s former students he would like to draw is John Galliano, now creative director of Maison Margiela. The designer instructed Tangye to put his designs on paper on several occasions, but he was never asked to sit down for his former teacher. Of his time at Saint Martins, Galliano says: ‘I trust Howard’s every criticism and his constant encouragement still sounds clear as the school time bells ring. He was as calming as Chopin to the soul, especially after the harsh judgment of other professors. To date, I have been humiliated by Howard’s work: his laser-sharp eye pierced by subjects; his curious and wonderful line, this deep, deep beautiful line – the line that encouraged me to cut clothes with the same passion. ”
However, the topics of Tangye are not uniquely related to fashion. Oscar Lhermitte, a French product designer, was a regular babysitter, and Tangye almost caught the plumber fixing his kettle a few years ago. “I thought he looked amazing and I asked him to sit down for me, which I rarely do because I’m a little shy,” laughs Tangye. “He said, ‘Yes, okay,’ but then we blocked and it never happened.
The forced pause in daily life drove Tangye’s creativity to new places. ‘I drew people across Zoom,’ he says, ‘and that meant the work became more tonal rather than linear. But now that I can have someone in the studio again – and this is definitely my preference – the work is a bit of both. This is a good development. He has also recently been working on a larger scale. In sy Evergreen series, overlapping several near-life-size figures in compositions that house for him the Australia of his orphanage.
“One of the places I grew up was Mount Isa in Queensland, far in the woods,” says Tangye. “It was an idyllic time and I automatically go back in my mind.” He points to two small watercolor paintings by his mother Betty depicting the landscape of Australia’s Magnetic Island. “I feel the move back there,” said Tangye, who has lived in his home in North London for more than 40 years – first staying with friends, before taking over an apartment and later buying the whole house. “I did not choose it — it chose me,” he smiles as he recalls removing a layer-upon-layer of wallpaper and paint and varnishing the worn textures. ‘Every time I walk through the door, I feel really good, but I realize that it may soon be time for a change.
Martin has his sights set on Australia – giving Tangye’s artwork the platform they deserve. “There are some museums I’m talking about,” he says. “I think it would be a while for Howard – a big show in Australia as homecoming, that’s the thing.”