London Calling for Derry's Dawn Cruttenden

Having had her work bought by Stevie Nicks, the artist has become the first woman to be commissioned by the English capital's 'most famous hotel'

It may be the 21st century but an artist who hails from Derry~Londonderry has become the first woman to have artwork commissioned by The Savoy in London. Dawn Coulter Cruttenden has created a triptych – a series of three drawings - for the project, which debuted at the iconic five-star hotel last month.

The work will be on permanent display in The Savoy’s newly opened Melba patisserie, and Cruttenden joins an impressive list of artists to have received the honour of being displayed in the building.

Indeed, The Savoy – known as ‘London’s most famous hotel’ - has long been showcasing the talents of artists, with none other than Monet serving as its first artist-in-residence in 1901. It’s also had more than its fair share of famous guests, including everyone from King Edward VII, to H. G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. And of course, the opera singer, Nellie Melba, now immortalised in Cruttenden’s drawings in The Legend of Melba.

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With the pictures all hand-drawn and with gold leaf detailing, the triptych tells the story of how The Savoy’s first head chef, Auguste Escoffier, created the Peach Melba dessert for Dame Nellie Melba. The renowned Australian opera singer, who hailed from Melbourne, often stayed in the hotel between tours, says Cruttenden.

'She started a minor revolution by making it socially acceptable for women to go out for dinner on their own - or at least, without a husband,' she says.

It was at one of her dinner parties that Melba was presented with the Peach Melba, after asking for a special menu to be created. Head chef Escoffier, depicted in Cruttenden’s central drawing, subsequently produced an ice sculpture of a swan from the opera Melba had just performed. The showstopper dessert came complete with a pyramid of peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream, and was crowned with spun sugar spirals. All of this is represented in Cruttenden’s work.

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'I’m really proud of it,' she says. 'It’s perhaps the best work I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the biggest drawing work I’ve ever done. Each one took about a month to do and they’re about 75cm high.'

In fact, so impressed is The Savoy’s current executive pastry chef by the drawings, that he’s now also commissioned a special edition éclair, with the artworks printed onto the chocolate.

With her drawings hanging resplendent in The Savoy, outwardly, it might seem that Cruttenden has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame in her field. But like most artists, she is no ‘overnight success’. In reality, Cruttenden has been steadily building up her portfolio over the years and has only relatively recently started to reap the benefits of this. Why? Well, she’s finally found her niche in what is a difficult industry to survive in.

'It was only when I started doing stuff I loved that people noticed my work,' she admits. 'I used to paint more landscapes, which were nice, but last year I did a series of fairy tale drawings, which I think were much more sincere. Those were spotted by the singer, Stevie Nicks’, make-up artist. She showed them to Stevie, who then bought everything I had, which was incredible, as I listen to her music while I’m working.'

It was as a result of this purchase that London-based Cruttenden then came to the attention of The Savoy. Unbeknown to her, the art agency which had sold her work put her name forward for the commission, and the rest is history. But while drawing is now firmly centre-stage in Cruttenden’s career, her route to success has had more than a few twists and turns. 

'I had a career in advertising before I had my daughters,' she says. 'I went to art college in Belfast and then in Newcastle in England, where I trained to be an illustrator. I lost confidence in it though, and it was just by chance my teacher spotted I was a good writer, so I gave that a go.'

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Moving to London to work as a copywriter, Cruttenden carved out a career in the creative industries - just not the way she’d initially anticipated. The urge to draw never left her however – indeed, it intensified – and after having her two daughters, she found her way back to doing what she loves best.

'So, it’s not something I’ve been able to have as a career consistently,' concedes Cruttenden. 'I also teach after-school art classes now every week, which has helped me keep going. I’ve just always worked at it since I was young. My dad was a fireman but also a watercolour artist, so it was very normal to pick up a paintbrush when I was growing up.'

Reflecting on the challenges of working as an artist, she adds that 'men seem to find success more easily' in the industry. 'I think women find it hard to say, "look at my work – I’m good". They have problems blowing their own trumpets. I mean - I’m the first woman artist commissioned by The Savoy and this is the 21st century.

'I also think that a lot of parents don’t have much confidence in art and aren’t confident in encouraging their children to do it. And I think it’s so short-sighted of the education system to be trying to push art out of the curriculum.'

With The Legend of Melba, Cruttenden says she’s attempted to recreate the vision 'of an amazing woman who powered through a time when women were frowned upon for being more than a beautiful accessory.

'She was a really fascinating character. She loved costume and glitter and was known for wearing all of her diamonds and pearls together so that she could be seen twinkling from the back of the theatre. So I decided to do a ‘pop colour’ with the gold leaf in the drawings. I thought the twinkle would be more Melba…'

Dawn Coulter Cruttenden’s The Legend of Melba is on display in The Savoy’s Melba patisserie in London, now. For more information on her work visit www.paperdawn.co.uk.