Imagine turning up for a blind date and finding David Bowie sitting opposite you.
That’s the surreal situation Portsmouth artist Derek Boshier was faced with back in the 1970s.
‘I had a call from photographer Duffy. He said “I’ve got this good friend. I’m sure you’d get on”,’ remembers Derek, now 75 and living in Los Angeles.
‘The way he phrased it, I thought the friend was female and it was a blind date. I thought “oh great”,’ continues Derek, a slight American twang distinguishable in his accent.
But Derek had the wrong idea and Brian Duffy was actually trying to set up a business meeting between his pop artist and pop icon friends.
At that meeting, Bowie asked Derek to design the cover for his latest record, Lodger. The result was the now-famous album cover featuring Bowie falling.
Perhaps more bizarre is the story of how Derek came to design the second song book of The Clash.
‘Joe Strummer of The Clash was in my class in his first year at the Central School of Art, where I taught,’ says British pop art pioneer Derek.
‘He used to sit in my class with his acoustic guitar, singing Bob Dylan songs and saying “Hey man, call me Woody”, although his real name was John.
‘Then, years later, I saw him in Oxford Street dressed all in black and Dr Martens. His bass player, Paul Simonon, was with him and there were some screaming fans behind.
‘I said “Woody!”. He pulled me into the shoe shop we were next to and said “I’m not called Woody now”.
‘I said “I know. That was a joke, Joe. I’m a great fan of The Clash”,’ continues Derek.
Not long after this chance meeting on the street, Strummer got in touch with Derek and asked him to design his second song book.
Sketches and models from Derek’s work on the Bowie cover and The Clash song book are among the works on display in a new exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
The exhibition is called Derek Boshier: David Bowie and The Clash and is part of a summer season dedicated to art and music which also includes the work of Sir Peter Blake – designer of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover.
Derek is the son of an Able Seaman in the navy. He grew up in Copnor and has returned to the area once or twice a year ever since.
The artist has fond memories of the Gosport ferry, mudlarks, Hilsea Lido and Canoe Lake. He always buys The News when he’s in town and he still likes to sit in the same spot on the beach by South Parade Pier that he’s visited since he was a small boy.
He remembers meeting his Pompey footballing idols when he visited a family friend who ran a bed and breakfast in Esslemont Road, Southsea, where many of them stayed.
And Derek recalls wanting to be a footballer himself in his earliest years.
In fact, he didn’t consider art as a career option until he came to leave school.
‘I was going to become a butcher,’ says Derek.
‘The only person who had anything to say about it was the art master, who said to me “have you ever thought of doing art”.
‘I said: “what’s art?” and he said “it’s what you do on Thursday afternoons”.
‘So I went to art school and it totally changed my life.’
Derek went on to study at the Royal College of Art in Kensington alongside Allen Jones, R B Kitaj and David Hockney, with whom he is still very good friends.
In 1962 he was featured in Ken Russell’s BBC documentary Pop Goes The Easel with Peter Blake, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips.
Then, during the 1970s, Derek experimented with different media, producing photographs, films, collages, constructions, books, posters and record covers.
‘I was always interested in pop music,’ explains Derek.
‘My art was always about culture and social change. I’m not a landscape artist, an abstract artist or a portrait artist. I work out of contemporary culture. My “still life” is from newspapers, TV news and popular culture.’
Despite being 10 years past retirement age, Derek works every day. And, just as he did in the 1960s and ’70s, he is still working on a lot of exciting projects.
As well as being in the middle of a number of artworks and a new book, he’s returning to England and giving a talk at the Pallant House exhibition next week.
He’ll also be be speaking at a screening of his films by the British Film Institute.
He explains: ‘Making art, you never retire, not until you drop dead.’
· Find Derek’s exhibition in Rooms 15 and 16 at Pallant House Gallery from Saturday until October 7. He’ll be at the gallery next Thursday (June 28), in conversation with writer and author Paul Gorman from 6pm. See Pallant.org.uk for further details.
David Bowie is Derek’s best collector, owning seven of his artworks. ‘Obviously, I think he has impeccable taste,’ says Derek, who has also painted a portrait of the singer in his stage role at The Elephant Man and worked on his Let’s Dance Cover and stage sets for his shows.
When Derek and Bowie first worked together, they discovered a common interest in falling figures and mime, which helped them come up with the idea for the Lodger cover.
Derek remembers: ‘We couldn’t drop him, but we had to make it look as though he was falling.
‘We built a table that had protrusions, so his splayed legs were an extension of the table. Then we shot from 10 or 12ft above with a bathroom sink placed on the floor beneath the table so it looks like he’s falling.’
‘MTV didn’t come into existence until 1981,’ explains Derek. ‘Before that, pop groups used to publish song books with all their lyrics, some of the chords and a lot of photos and visuals. The Clash’s second song book was 48 pages. Joe sent me the lyrics and told me to do whatever I liked with the rest.’
Perhaps the best-known album cover of all time is the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was designed by Derek’s contemporary, Peter Blake.
His work features in the main exhibition at Pallant House.
Derek says of that cover: ‘It’s an icon. It’s just one of those covers that goes on forever. It’s fascinating.’