Gilson Lavis: a life of sticks and brushes and black and white portraits

There was a great turnout for the opening night of the  new  exhibition of paintings by my good  friend, drummer-turned-portrait-artist Gilson Lavis, at the weekend. Self-taught painter Gilson specialises in black and white acrylic studies of many of the famous musicians he plays with in the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Painted backstage, in hotel rooms and at his home studio, the works on show feature some great performers  – Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Paul Weller, Doctor John, The Rolling Stones, the list goes on.

Many of the musicians he paints have become his friends. Others have exerted a profound influence on a career that dates back  more than 40 years to his days before he finding fame with Squeeze when he played for everyone from Chuck Berry to variety artists like Tommy Cooper, Bruce Forsythe and Bob Monkhouse.  The exhibition is called Portraits: Gilson Lavis in Black & White and is at the Hatch Gallery in Christchurch, Dorset, until Friday October 4. Find out more and find out why Gilson chose to stage the show in a  small town Dorset venue in my piece below published in the September edition of Dorset magazine. Check out the gallery website too at

Gilson in his studio
Gilson in his studio

Words:  Jeremy Miles   Pictures: Hattie Miles

He’s one of the best and most versatile drummers in the world. Whether it’s rock, blues, R&B, soul, jazz or big band boogie, Gilson Lavis plays like a dream. Yet, at the age of 62, Gilson has decided that it might be an idea to add another string to his bow. Something to fall back on in his old age when the constant touring and punishing  effects of his nightly virtuoso drum solos become too much.

For the past few years he’s been quietly developing a second career as a portrait painter. His black and white acrylic studies focus on the musicians he has worked with or been inspired by. Many of the paintings have been snapped-up by their subjects. Others are on sale though his own personal website. Now Gilson is planning to officially launch his career as an artist with a late summer exhibition in Dorset. The show which opens at Hatch Gallery in Christchurch on September 6 and runs until October 4 will hopefully be the first of a series of shows around the country.

Me and Gilson
Me and Gilson

Christchurch – home to what is officially the oldest population in England and Wales. Town motto: ‘Where time is pleasant’ – might seem a strange choice of location for a musician who has graduated with honours from the wild-man school of rock. After all his hard-boozing, dope-fuelled antics back in the days when he was with Squeeze got him sacked not once but twice. Gilson, however has been sober for years and is happy to embrace the quiet life these days. He admits that he’s constantly on the road and doesn’t often get a chance to stop and take stock of the English countryside. Dorset is different. He knows the county well not only from the annual gigs he plays with Jools at the Bournemouth International Centre but also because his wife Nicky was born and brought up in Swanage and went to school at the old Boscombe Convent.

Gilson and Nicky with gallery owner Jo Dyton (left)
Gallery owner Jo Dyson with Gilson and Nicky

The pair met when Nicky was working as Jools Holland’s PA – their romance sparked by “flirting over the typewriter” she says.  For the past 20 years home has been a beautiful old Lincolnshire farmhouse lovingly renovated by Gilson as part of his ongoing commitment to sobriety. But family holidays with Nicky have often  been spent in Dorset watching their son (also Gilson and now a strapping 17-year-old) playing on Swanage beach.  There are also the happy memories of performing summer concerts in the Larmer Tree Gardens. “I love Dorset, it’s a beautiful part of the world so it seems appropriate to launch my exhibition at Hatch Gallery. It’s absolutely perfect, a small independent gallery in a part of the country I love. What could be better?”

Amazingly Gilson is an entirely self-taught artist. He says he discovered that he could draw and paint purely by accident. In a curious twist of fate it was the legacy of his drink and drug addled past that provided the opportunity to discover this latent talent. “You very rarely see an alcoholic with a nice smile and I’m afraid my teeth were in a shocking state,” he explains. “Eventually about five years ago they became so painful and infected that I had to get them fixed.”  Gilson flew to  Budapest for dental treatment only to discover that the rather pleasant sounding flat that he had booked on-line was little more than a squat. There were long days to fill as his remaining teeth were extracted and he waited for implants. “It was horrible,” he recalls. “There was nothing in the place except a TV showing endless programmes in Hungarian and a radio station that played nothing but European and American pop.

“I was bored and fed up but then I found a pen and some paper and started to sketch. “I really enjoyed it and I couldn’t believe how good the results were. First I copied a picture that was on the wall – a kind of knight on horseback and then I found a photograph on my laptop of our tour manager Steve so I drew that too. It was incredible I had no idea I could draw so well.  “At school I had a bit of a reputation for drawing ladies’ breasts in my exercise book. The other kids always thought they were really good but apart from that and trying to copy pictures from a few comics I never paid much attention to art. It certainly never occurred to me that I had any real artistic talent.”

Gilson and Mick
Gilson and Mick

When he got home Nicky and his Jools Holland bandmates were equally surprised and impressed by this hitherto untapped talent. “That was it,” says Gilson. “From that moment on I was sketching the band, the crew, in fact anyone who would stand still for five minutes. I suppose that went on for a couple of years and then someone suggested I try painting. I wasn’t sure. I remember thinking that was a big step. I mean painting, that’s proper art.” Once again Gilson surprised himself, graduating first to brush-pens and then acrylics. He soon established a signature style with vibrant monochrome portraits. His subjects are drawn mainly from the many people he has worked with. The day I visited his studio the walls were hung with recent paintings of Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Roland Gift, Paloma Faith, Amy Winehouse, Chris Rea, Andy Fairweather Low, Paul McCartney and many more. There were stories and anecdotes to go with each one. Just one of the reasons Gilson loves painting.

Surveying the works and executing a few finishing touches to Eric Clapton, he told me: “Sketching and painting make me feel really focused. It’s a meditative process. I can lose myself in a painting and just for a while this head of mine, which normally spins like a washing machine, is still. It really is a wonderful thing.” He gets particular pleasure from painting portraits of the musicians he has worked with. “I love painting faces. There’s a story in a face, real depths to explore. There’s youth in the smile, warmth in the eyes and experience in the wrinkles. There’s stuff going on! But for it to work I have to have known that person, however fleetingly. Give me a photograph of someone I don’t know or haven’t got a clue about and I have no interest in painting them at all.”

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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