The Chester blog

John Donnelly: 25 years on the walls

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John Donnelly, has been the resident artist on the walls ( see https://thechesterblog.com/2014/09/16/20-years-on-the-walls-john-donnelly/) since 1994, always in the same spot by the side  of the Eastgate clock , apart from a brief exile on King Charles’ Tower during clock repairs. A well known face in the city, John offered his thoughts on how the city and the art scene have changed in the last 25 years.

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“By my recollection, last Friday was my 25th anniversary. I remembered I started in August of 1994. Chester was very different. It was full of people with these strange objects where you pressed a button and you had to wait for 2 weeks to get your photographs developed ! People took more time looking at the city rather than looking at themselves through their phones. They were living in the moment more…

“We have a clock ahead of us which must be one of the most beautiful sights in England. It was a gamble putting a piece of Victorian iron architecture on top of a stone bridge. Yet now, when you walk out of the likes of Primark or Marks and Spencers, and look at that view ahead, its got to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. ” He says philosophically.  “The clock shows Great Britain at the height of its powers when we the workshop of the world and everyone looked to Britain for a lead. ”

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The immortal Eastgate 

John says that artists face a challenge in the 21st century : “Pure art has been replaced by technology to an extent that I think is going too far. My pleasure in life has always been to sit with a blank piece of paper and sit and create something on that , and that’s the magic of art. You see in it children when they’re painting at school. I see it in my daughter, she’s 10. I think we’re losing all that in our reliance on computer screens.

However he says that his own art has evolved. “Technically I have  grown more proficient and my imagination has expanded as I grow older. I seem to be able to come up with ideas that will please my clients. I get a lot of inspiration from being in Chester and being surrounded by such beauty.  But as I say, the use of technology, is moving the tide against the real artists and it can be a struggle to keep your head above water… 

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Art by John 

“My work this year, because the interest in people passing by has somewhat diminished, I’ve had an increase in the number of commissions I’m taking. Its great because I can do specialist work for people on a bespoke level. Whereas, who wants to buy a print of the Eastgate clock when they’ve just taken 69 photos on their phone?

“When I started doing this if I sat there with a sketch book I’d have 10 -15 people watching me. When I was a kid if we had somebody round to the house, I’d grab a piece of paper and a pencil and say to them “draw me this…” I’ve never lost the love of watching that and then doing it.  we had a building site at the back of the house and watch the guys laying bricks. I could watch a DVD of it for three hours!  ” He says he has always enjoyed watching and being involved in the creative process , but fears the impact of technology. “ Do we really learn anything when you can go and look everything up on the internet?” he ponders.  “When the learning process is shortened then you lose something… that thirst for knowledge and the desire to search. ” 

On a personal level, his highlight of the last quarter century are meeting his partner and the birth of their daughter.  “She used to work at the hotel next door to us. That was the main personal thing that happened.  Its been marvellous to meet people from all over the world, that hasn’t changed. And the beautiful thing about meeting people is you realise how small the world is .  You can be talking to a person from America or Australia  who is a only a few generations apart from a relative or a neighbour. More people should come to Chester which brings me to my net point.. a lot of the people I meet on the walls are either here by accident or here because they have an extra day before they go on to their main event, or they have time to kill. ( As we talk a large tour group passes by ) ..When they do come here they realise they should have had their main holiday here. Chester is a beautiful find for people but shouldn’t we be working on getting more people here ?

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We paused our conversation as John spoke to an  Italian tourist who is browsing the art on display.  “I like Chester  very much, it was a surprise to me!” she says before handing over a £20 note for a coloured sketch of the Eastgate clock. 

John is quite critical of some aspects of the city:  ”  The world has clearly changed immeasurably in many ways since 1994, as it will have changed since 1964 or 1934. I feel as a resident now, that things are getting a bit out of hand. The city has changed its complexion completely. We find a city that has been turned into something of a free for all, in the way people behave and conduct themselves.  People tell me that other towns and cities are worse than Chester, but I only care about the place I live. I came up the steps last Saturday and on the top step there was somebody lying in a sleeping bag with a dog next to them. This was 9 o clock in the morning with tourists from all over the planet walking by.  2 hours later this character had been moved on, not without him giving us a mouthful of abuse, and then of course the cleaner had to be called. In the 21st century in this country,  we have to face this. ..”

However he says that:   “My criticisms are only of the things that I can see that are growing wrong .. Storyhouse I was very worried about , I didn’t think it was going to work and I am absolutely thrilled that it has. It took some getting used because its an amalgamation of library, theatre, cinema, art.. its a bit of a mish mash but if you accept it like people have then it is quite a wonderful place to be.  I check my emails there in the evening and I’ m thrilled to see the people spilling out of the theatre because I really didn’t think it was going to work.  Personally I’m looking forward to Roger McGough coming in November. I appreciate his poetry so much. I’d like to do a painting of one of his poems and present it to him. ” 

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John presents his art to Ainsley Harriot 

“I did that with Ainsley Harriot. I’m involved with WHSmiths a bit.  I use their materials, they’re not cheap but they’re very effective. They have book signings on a regular basis. William Roache was last year. He told me it was one of the nicest signings he had ever been to. I’ve been going to Smiths ever since I was a very small child and its great to support that shop. ” He also praises the revived Chester market. “It was getting a bit depressing at one stage, but new life has been breathed into it, which is wonderful. ”

John tells me about meeting a visiting American choir whilst they were visiting for an event at the town hall ” I was lucky enough to meet some of the American choir in the morning on their walk around the walls. Frank Regan in particular, one of their singers gave me a demonstration of his singing. I caught the end of the concert in the Town Hall and it sounded wonderful.  The Town Hall is an incredible venue for concerts . To have it packed with people and with a beautiful choir was fantastic. ”

John says he occasionally gets asked about @shitchester after having featured on the blog twice before.  “A few years ago  I was living down Garden Lane and I saw you outside a shop photographing bollards and road signs and I thought “what in the name of God is he doing?” It was only when I gradually got to know you that I realised that you were observing the city, and you were actually making a contribution that very few people do .What you try to do is try to portray the positives far in advance of the negatives. But if you’ve got to be controversial , you have to be controversial. As simple as that !”

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Known for his drawings of the Daleks in Chester and other pop culture icons, the conversation moved onto Doctor Who. ” I think its marvellous. I’m a Doctor Who traditionalist and for me William Hartnell was the Doctor. At the time that Doctor Who started, the idea was fantastic and it represented everything that was great about Britain at the time, imagination , the whole creative process of creating a broadcasting phenomena. The fact that its lasted so long is brilliant. Jodie Whittaker is an excellent actress, but the pace is too varied. Too many companions and too preachy! We all know about Rosa Parks !” he comments.

I ask John if he intends to stay here for another 25 years?

 “I would like to think I’ll be in Chester for the next 25 years I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.  Infrequently ,for the next 25 years I’ll be on this spot. 

“Theres something timeless about being here. This view hasn’t changed since the clock was erected in 1899. On a quiet morning when there are no visitors I can picture people in Victorian clothes strolling through. I can picture soldiers taking one last glimpse at the bridge before they go off to fight. I see lovers on the bridge proposing, getting engaged. Babies being brought up here for the first time, all these magical events are a privilege to observe. …

” This is my main source of income… I do the occasional assassination…” he jokes.   “At the end of  it, those of us that live here, don’t tire of it. Each day is a renewal… but if you were born in the town I was, anywhere is better !!! “

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