Denzil Forrester

  • Image: Denzil Forrester, 'Funeral of Winston Rose', 1981. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

2019 November 24th
Went to London to draw Jah Shaka, which I hadn’t done for over 30 years. In the late 70s and 80s I used to draw Shaka every weekend at Phebes nightclub in Stoke Newington. I was quite excited to see what Shaka looks like in 2019. He was playing at Subterania night club in Ladbroke Grove.

November 22nd
Jah Shaka hasn’t changed much, just a little slower. It was almost like being back in the 80s, drawing and enjoying the music.

2020 January 1st
Phillippa, two friends and I went to Rome for the week. Rome was amazing; we stayed in a monastery close to the Colosseum.

January 7th
Back in Truro and I was ill for four days. In retrospect I believe it was connected to the virus. It had strange symptoms.

February 7th
My exhibition opened at Nottingham Contemporary.

March 16th
Covid-19 arrived. My show was closed

March 23rd onwards
Lockdown began. I carried on working on a painting from the studies made at Subterania, grateful that I had been able to complete the research before lockdown.

The first month of lockdown was wonderful. The whole of life changed. You could see, smell, taste and feel all around you. I woke up one morning at about 7am and, on my way to the studio from the house, heard rustles from the quarry cliff above my studio, looked up and to my amazement saw a full-grown deer strolling along the edge. The animals felt free to come out of hiding and enjoy the open spaces that we usually take over.

I stopped working on my painting of Shaka at the beginning of April. I had lots of problems with the colour and the composition in the making of this one. I began a new work based on the drawings I made in Kingston, Jamaica, when I was drawing in dub clubs there last year.

My brother Richie sends me endless media info about world news. Before Covid I had no interest in looking at anything like this on my phone, but now I am hooked.

May 31st
The shocking George Floyd video spread around the world like Covid-19. My immediate thought was of Winston Rose, a friend of mine who died in police custody in very similar circumstances in London in 1981. This has all connected me back into a world that I was deeply affected by when I lived in London. I was tempted to go back and make drawings of the protests, but lockdown had the last word.

Lockdown has given us all more time and internal space to look at ourselves and at nature. For some living in the cities the isolation and not being able to enjoy city life must have been unbearable. But lockdown has given us the opportunity to be a much better people for the future. We have been faced with living with ourselves for a short time in our lives and seeing what really matters.

– Denzil Forrester, June 2020

Funeral of Winston Rose was painted at the Royal College of Art in 1982, following the death of Winston Rose in police custody in July 1981. Forrester’s and Rose’s families had lived in the same house in Stoke Newington and Denzil and Winston had played together as children. When he heard about the death of his friend, Denzil decided to research the circumstances leading to his death for his MA thesis at the Royal College of Art. He attended the inquest held at Waltham Forest Magistrates Court and reported on all he heard, in particular noting the institutional assumption that Winston Rose must be violent and that the use of police force was therefore justified and necessary:

The doctor was told [that] Winston came into the hospital accompanied by four officers and hand-cuffed. Because of this the doctor simply assumed Winston was a violent person. She based her theories on the way he was handled and delivered to the hospital. She didn’t even inquire if the four officers had any previous experience of cases such as Winston. She simply joined the queue of professional authoritative people working in institutions in society who too readily accept a situation as it is handed to them, but which they know very little about.

. . . The strange thing is however that at the coroner’s hearing there was not one person that admitted to Winston’s behaviour as being violent and aggressive. . . This reflects my general impression of the whole case. The authorities took it for granted that because Winston was mentally ill he was therefore violent. . .

. . . The ambulance men took Winston’s pulse. He didn’t have any. One of the ambulance men said he was dead. Winston was placed in the ambulance with handcuffs still on because the [police] officers didn’t have the key. He was rushed to the nearest hospital to be officially pronounced dead.

The full manuscript of Denzil Forrester’s dissertation can be read here.

In the painting Winston Rose is seen lying in a coffin in of one of the dub clubs in which Denzil spent time drawing at that time, surrounded by Rastafarians and others who came to listen and dance.

Denzil Forrester was born in Grenada in 1956 and moved to London in 1967. He studied at Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art. On graduating he was awarded a scholarship to spend time at the British School at Rome from 1983 to 1985. After spending two years in the United States on a Harkness Scholarship he took up a part-time teaching post at Morley College in London, where he taught drawing until the summer of 2016. He and his partner Phillippa Clayden moved to Cornwall in 2012 and now live in Truro. Denzil’s work was exhibited at the Kurt Jackson Foundation in St Just in 2018 in an exhibition curated by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs. Earlier this year Nottingham Contemporary presented his most significant institutional show to date, Itchin & Scratchin, organised in partnership with Spike Island in Bristol. The exhibition has been closed during lockdown, but will open again in Nottingham from 4 to 31 August. It will be shown at Spike Island from 19 September to 13 December.

In June 2017 Denzil ran a series of life classes with Phillippa Clayden at CAST, based on Kimon Nicolaides’ book The Natural Way to Draw. A planned Saturday Club class at CAST was postponed because of lockdown.

www.stephenfriedman.com/denzil-forrester