Mr David Weston - Doctor of Letters - Leicestershire artist
Oration by Dr S J Gurman
David Weston is a professional artist based at Kirby Bellars in Leicestershire. He paints what he has witnessed over the past half-century: the end of an era in British heavy industry and the consequent changes to the English landscape which he dearly loves. Coal mining, the steel industry, the canals and the railways are favourite subjects of his. He has published nine books of paintings, with explanatory text written by himself. His work has also been the subject of two television documentaries.
David Weston was born in Belgrave, in the north of the city of Leicester, in 1935, the son of an aircraft engineer. He knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a painter but getting started was not easy. As a young man he ran a draper’s shop in Belgrave, painting in his spare time, and not turning professional until he was thirty five. In these early years he painted mostly railway scenes and first achieved success when he exhibited his work at the British Transport Museum, then in Clapham, South London. He also had a one-man show in the Engineering Building of this University in 1971: the first and probably the only art exhibition held in that building. These first shows led to a commission from Sir William McAlpine, of the civil engineering company, for a series of large paintings on the development of the railways, a project David Weston had long considered. These twenty four works show the progress of British railways from the early days of Trevithick and Stephenson, through the powerful locomotives of the twenties and thirties to the last days of steam. They were shown in many galleries and museums on a tour of Britain culminating in a six-month showing at the National Railway Museum at York, where they are known simply as the Weston Collection.
David Weston works in both oils and watercolour, although he prefers the latter medium for its complexities and its ability to portray atmospheric effects. He is a master of these effects, in both oil and watercolour, particularly those resulting from the interplay of light and smoke. This mastery is apparent in his oil painting “Sunlight in the Shed”, a view in the Midland sheds at Holbeck. This is a wonderful tapestry of fleeting sunbeams combined with steam and smoke with a bulky Jubilee class locomotive, transformed into an image of broken masses and glistening highlights.
David Weston is generally known as a railway painter but many of his works are better described as industrial landscapes. The small watercolour “Drama at Wellingborough”, which depicts the steel furnaces there in full production, is another example of his mastery of light and smoke. He has done several paintings of the steelworks at Corby, that anomalous town in Northamptonshire where everybody seems to speak with a Glasgow accent. These are also gentler scenes, such as the oil “Moonlight on the Canal”, a view of the Grand Union Canal in the centre of Leicester with the Great Central viaduct in the background. The view is from the old Slater Street bridge whose ornate wrought iron railings cut across the whole lower half of the painting. This no longer exists, having been replaced by, in my view and David Weston’s words, “a concrete monstrosity”. David Weston is also a great painter of bridges. Others recall the pleasures of life, such as “Coming out of Leicester”. This shows an excursion train, bound for Skegness out of Leicester Belgrave Road, hauled by a grimy (and rather too smoky, suggesting inadequate maintenance) B1 engine. This recalls the time when a large proportion of the population of Leicester moved en masse to the coast during Knitwear Fortnight, when the factories all closed. The Leicester Knitwear Fortnight no longer exists as such but the excursion trains still leave Leicester for Skegness on summer Saturdays, although they are no longer steam-hauled and Belgrave Road Station is long gone.
David Weston is also known for his paintings of industrial interiors. Some are in substance still life paintings: details of objects in railwaymen’s huts or station waiting rooms. Most are studies of working interiors: corn mills, smithies and railway workshops. A notable series of paintings has been reproduced in his book “David Weston’s England”. These are of a blacksmith’s shop in Lincolnshire. The blacksmith left everything just as it was, locked up his shop and left to fight in World War Two. He never returned. His sister kept the shop, locked and untouched, until her death in the 1970s. David Weston was fortunate to be able to paint it immediately after it was opened up. His series of paintings show a working industrial interior in all its detail, redolent of the life and trade of a blacksmith some sixty years ago.
Amongst the many students graduating today are those who have taken the B. A. course in Contemporary History. This is David Weston’s field. For over forty years he has, lovingly and expertly, painted the workaday scenes which formed the backdrop to so many lives, in Leicestershire and beyond, as they were lived just the day before yesterday. These things were and are no more, so much of his work is elegiac but it is rarely sad. It will delight future generations and inform them of everyday, industrial life in the East Midlands in the second half of the twentieth century. We honour him for it.
Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present David Weston that you may confer on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.
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