British artist Helen Downie, who works under the moniker Unskilled Worker, creates whimsical painted worlds filled with wide-eyed protagonists, animals and flowers, all rendered with a delightful attention to pattern, texture and colour. Her work is nostalgic yet contemporary, complex yet childlike, and above all intriguing. Today marks the launch of a new collaboration between Unskilled Worker and Gucci – a 40-piece capsule collection, ranging from ready-to-wear to shoes, bags and accessories, all bearing Downie’s playful, instinctively crafted illustrations.
Michele first discovered Unskilled Worker via her Instagram account in 2015, inviting her to take part in the Gucci art exhibition, No Longer / Not Yet, in Shanghai, where the artist first interpreted the designer’s distinct universe in her own complementary style, dreaming up a diverse cast of Gucci-clad characters. “It’s like a spontaneous creative conversation in which I try to pick up on Alessandro’s references, while adding my own thoughts to the characters and their experiences with little hidden messages that can’t be seen at first glance,” Downie tells us. “It’s been very exciting to discover his world and combine it with mine.”
Downie’s own influences are varied. “I look at religious art, vintage Russian postcards, old Chinese advertising posters, Tudor paintings and my childhood books,” she explains. “I also love Oscar Wilde, Otto Dix, Henry Darger and photographers like Malick Sidibé, while at other times I’ll be inspired by a face in a crowd.” She is also very much inspired by places, as evidenced in a new short made in celebration of the capsule, created in collaboration with Dazed Media and captured by London photography duo Hill & Aubrey. The suitably dreamy film follows the artist as she takes us on a maze-like tour of some of her favourite locations in Florence, Rome and her hometown of London. We caught up with Downie to hear more about five of these magical must-visits, spanning a natural history museum, a vintage treasure trove and a crypt decorated with human bones.
1. La Specola, Via Romana 17, Florence
In spite of its location right next to the imposing Pitti Palace, the Florentine paragon of Renaissance architecture, the city’s museum of zoology and natural history is a little-known gem. “I discovered La Specola on my first trip to Florence,” says Downie. “For me, it’s a place filled with humour. The stuffed animals have been given human expressions; there’s a shark that’s been laughing since 1775 and birds that do a very modern eye-roll, almost as if they’re bored of being stuck on display. The funniest of all is a hippo with bent feet; he looks like he’s wearing hippo shoes. The animals in my paintings usually represent humans I’ve known, and perhaps that idea came from walking around this wonderful museum.”
2. Epoca Vintage, Via dei Fossi 6, Florence
“The man that owns this shop is passionate; he’s had it a lifetime and his love for it shines out,” Downie tells us of her favourite vintage clothing destination, situated on Florence’s Via dei Fossi, an elegant street brimming with antique shops. “You can find amazing Gucci pieces there,” she continues, “and it’s also where I bought my current favourite coat: a mustard yellow Loden one that’s the most perfect fit. It had been in Epoca for years, as if it were waiting for me to come along and take it on more adventures! I love the idea that clothes have an unknown history... if only they could talk.”
3. The Capuchin Crypt, Via Veneto, Rome
“This is the most magical place!” Downie says of the extraordinary cluster of small underground chapels, located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome and decorated with the bones of thousands of deceased Capuchin friars. A monk named Michael of Bergamo oversaw, what Downie terms, the “intricate placing bones into Rococo patterns,” which have remained remarkably intact since the 17th century. “It’s not as eerie as you would think,” the artist expands. “It has the power to gently remind you to get on with life. I like to attempt to bring that feeling into my work – life and death happening at the same; it’s a feeling that’s easier to paint than put into words.”
4. The River Cafe, Putney Bridge, London
A good local cafe is essential to London life, but can often be hard to find. Downie’s top pick is the River Cafe, a charming, family-run spot situated directly opposite Putney Bridge tube station. “I first went there as a teenager and have been going ever since,” she says. “It’s a simple London cafe – not to be confused with the other River Café – and has been owned by the same Italian family for 50 years. The decor has never changed and the food is made with pride and love. They have a diverse mix of clientele and the tables are laid out canteen style, so conversation will always ensue.”
5. Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, London
It was at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII’s majestic abode located on the river Thames, that Downie first fell in love with Tudor art, an important influence on her work to this day. “I must have been five or six when I first went there and saw the Holbein paintings,” she recalls. “To stand in front of them as a child – without a mind full of references, just taking them in exactly as they were – was an incredible experience. I also remember seeing the staircase painted by Antonio Verrio; it was the ultimate cloud gazing. As I grew up, I learnt the violent history of the palace: how Cardinal Wolsey had it built for himself but outdid Henry VIII’s palace in the process. Wolsey lost his head and Henry moved in!” To this day, Downie remains captivated by the part-Tudor part-Baroque building and its expansive gardens. “It has everything,” she enthuses. “The ghost of Anne Boleyn, huge royal beds, paintings with eyes that follow you, secret passageways, and a maze in the garden.”
Unskilled Worker’s exclusive collection for Gucci is available to shop here.