The painting depicts a time before electronic travel boards, when train times were chalked on blackboards. The model Dean found for the painting was a gravedigger from the Oxfordshire village Wolvercote. The grave digger died a year after. He didn’t really speak much and was very much lost in his own thoughts. It was included in a group show on the theme of urban realism called Art for Society at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
“This was the first of my train reference paintings which culminated in Compartments (trilogy) which was 1979-80. In retrospective I now wonder if they also refer to the fact that I wasn’t completely happy living in Oxford at that time and wanted to be back in London. I had just left the Landesmans house at Duncan Terrace. It’s a painting about travel and the passing of time –the days of British Rail may be romanticised now but I remember dirty, often smelly trains which didn’t run late –at least they were on the London /Oxford line.” – Dean.
Graham Dean was born in Birkenhead in 1951. He studied at the Laird School of Art in Birkenhead and the Faculty of Art and Design at Bristol Polytechnic.
Dean began his artistic career as a book jacket illustrator in London, but his talent was soon spotted by the innovative Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, who championed his work. Dean began painting in acrylics, which was very unusual at that time. As he recalls ‘Acrylics then were the new big thing – they were American, all the realists and Pop artists used them, although British critics used to look down on them’. His satirical Post-pop images painted in a medium considered outlandish at the time perfectly caught the emerging diversity of culture and society in 1970’s Britain. It is worth remembering that he was only in his twenties at the time, so ideally placed to recognise and reflect the social change that was happening all around him.
During these formative years Dean was renting an attic studio in the house of the writer Jay Landesman, a Bohemian hubbub where conceivably anyone could turn up at any time. Dean remembers the day musician Tom Waits did just that, and took the time to look at his paintings. Dean was working on one of his most renowned paintings, The Pugilist, during this time – a perfect example of his urban realist style. 8 Duncan Terrace, a view of dustbins outside the Landesman residence, was used as part-payment of the rent, truly in the style of many struggling yet aspiring artists.
Dean’s paintings from this time are intensely detailed, a direct result of his graphic design studies whilst at Bristol Poly. Themes such as apartheid, skin disorders, intimacy and social division are explored. He used this realism to illustrate his perception of the changing world around him, sometimes with a very apparent underlying message. The figures, events and situations jump from painting to painting following through a thread of different events. A detail from one becomes part of a larger narrative in an another. Works such as Refugee from England (Memories), Signpost and Camouflage, encapsulate an era that seems so familiar but yet so different from the present.
Graham Dean now lives in Brighton. The human body and condition still remain his subject, but his preferred medium now is watercolour. His current works are more visceral, still depicting the presence of the human body in space although that space is now altogether less defined. The urban realism of his early days has been replaced with an ethereal, more mysterious edge.