Meet David Tovey: The artist behind our royal wedding cover

We asked some of our Street Art contributors to help us celebrate the royal wedding – Big Issue style! David Tovey designed one of two covers for The Big Issue this week

When Windsor was announced as Harry and Meghan’s wedding venue, a right royal media storm kicked up. And the town’s homeless population was caught in the middle.

Rough sleepers should be swept off the streets ahead of the big day, council leader Simon Dudley urged police earlier this year.

The royal wedding has kept homelessness on the agenda. And in this week’s Big Issue we asked some of our Street Art contributors to help us celebrate the royal wedding – Big Issue style!

This week’s cover illustration came from David Tovey, who spent six years as a chef in the army and cooked for the Queen at Windsor Castle. After leaving the military, he ran a restaurant until suffering a stroke in 2011. A series of health problems including cancer and a heart attack followed, leading to homelessness and a suicide attempt.”. Art is one of the best treatments for trauma,” Tovey says. Today he is a rising star in the art world and has founded the One Festival of Homeless Arts.

This interview with David was originally published in March 2016

I absolutely love London. Every single night of the year the sky is a different colour. Go to the country and every night the sky is black. In London because of the heat in the city, the different temperatures, you’ve got purples, blues, pinks, oranges – a slight haze on certain nights. It’s spectacular and fascinating. I noticed this when I was homeless.

I was born in Kent. I spent six years as a chef in the British army, posted all over the place. Aldershot for training, Sandhurst, where all the officers train. I cooked for the Queen at Windsor Castle for a bit. Then I was posted to Dover. We were a rapid response unit so if something happened we’d have 36 hours to be at that location as a whole battalion.

After I left the army in 1997 I lived in Australia for two and a half years working in restaurants. When I came back I moved to Plymouth. Coming from Sydney where it’s so cosmopolitan and vibrant and moving to Plymouth… That was quite a culture shock.

When I moved up to London in 2007 I was blown away by the city. I was head chef at the BFI Southbank. We fed a hell of a lot of famous people: Dustin Hoffman, Colin Firth, Daniel Craig, Judi Dench. You name it they ate at our cafes. Contracts changed so I opened my own place at the end of 2008. It was a little pub restaurant over in Euston, a great place to work. I made a lot of friends, worked hard, partied hard. I drank myself silly until about four o’clock every morning then get up at 8am to go to work. I did that for most of my catering life and there’s only so long your body can put up with that.

I had a stroke on Easter Sunday in 2011. That is the busiest day of the year for a chef. Everyone brings out their mothers and their families – it’s hell on earth. It certainly wasn’t the best day to have a stroke. I was lucky, the ambulance got there within two and a half minutes.

Because it was my own business I went back to work after a week. That was probably the biggest mistake I made. It was too soon. I’d lost a bit of my memory and I couldn’t focus – I set light to the kitchen – and had to walk away from the business.

A few months later I got really ill. I had neurosyphilis. Normally that takes about 15 years to develop, unless you have other problems. At the time I didn’t know I had other problems. Four days after I was admitted to hospital for treatment I found out I had colon cancer. Ten days later I had a reaction to an injection, which caused me to have a cardiac arrest. I got brought back to life, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you now. There is a happy ending, honest!

That was quite a changing point in my life. Afterwards, every time I’d get a slight pain or a slight headache or whatever, I’d have a panic attack, but in March 2012 I got the all clear from cancer. Then in April I got a phone call from the hospital saying that there was a problem with my blood. I was HIV positive. It was a shock but I actually laughed about it. I’d been so ill, everything was going wrong and suddenly I had an excuse.

Cheffing had been my life up until that stage, I didn’t know what else I could do. I’d always loved art so I started a foundation year in art at university. Everything was going fine on my course then around February 2013 I started getting ill again. My cancer had come back. Depression, a lot of depression. I couldn’t work, I was trying to keep up with uni, I didn’t have any money. My life was falling apart and everything got on top of me. On 20 June 2013 on Highbury Fields I took a massive overdose to end my life.

I don’t remember much about that morning. All I remember is coming round in the ambulance. They said I was very lucky, I was right outside a leisure centre and one of the lifeguards coming into work and saw me collapse and resuscitated me.

Aunt Jean by David Tovey
Aunt Jean by David Tovey
“Being a social artist means I like to raise awareness of issues that are close to my heart,” he says. “This is a portrait I’ve just finished of my beautiful aunt who is living with dementia. Dementia is cruel. Not only does it take the life of the person living with it, but also all of those around them. This picture is for the strength of my cousins.”

One of the biggest causes of homelessness is the welfare cuts. I ended up on the streets because I was a student. As a student you’re not entitled to any housing benefit so when I got ill and couldn’t work, I couldn’t get help. I lost my flat, all the time whilst being ill. I was living in a car still trying to go to uni, trying to keep myself as healthy as possible but it was getting out of control. I was literally dying on the streets.

In November my health deteriorated badly. I was broken, so broken. I couldn’t imagine waking up the following day and it got to the stage where I didn’t want to wake up the following day. I decided to end my life again. I don’t know what time of day it was, I just know it was pitch black. I went to a park that was locked to take a massive overdose, enough to kill an elephant. I was just about to inject when suddenly this person grabbed it and grabbed me.

I would have been another statistic, another number, another dead person on the streets

Gavin Judd. That guy changed my life. I should rephrase that, he didn’t change my life, he gave me my life. He was a park enforcement officer. He sat with me, talked with me for hours. He gave me some money, some food and into a night shelter the following day. Everything I do now is to prove to him that he did the right thing. I would have been another statistic, another number, another dead person on the streets. He changed that. He stopped that from happening.

Art is one of the best treatments for trauma. Trauma can mean anything, losing a family member, a relationship breaking down, losing a house, losing the will to get out of bed. Art is escapism. Even if you only have a piece of paper and draw a straight line on it, you’re thinking of drawing that straight line, not all the shit that’s going on in your life. I still suffer badly from depression but I control it with my work. I paint, draw, do photography, make films, sculpture and fashion.

I was introduced to some guys from Clothing the Homeless who want to get people back on their feet through art. I made a whole catwalk collection of clothes made from material I found on the streets and in September last year we went out on to the streets of London for an impromptu fashion show. I wanted to raise awareness of homelessness. If I stood on a box getting angry and shouting about the problem of homelessness nobody’s going to listen. But if I walk 11 stunning models down the Southbank people won’t just listen – they will follow. We had over 1000 people following us along the Southbank.

I’m on a mission to prove that there are fantastic, great people who just happen to be homeless. It sounds weird but becoming homeless was probably the best thing ever to happen to me. It was like being hit by a tornado. It turned everything upside down and I had to think, re-evaluate and readjust my whole life. I will raise more awareness by giving something positive to people than shouting and being negative. And it’s working. I just want to prove that broken people can rebuild their lives as I rebuilt mine.

Support our artists with The Big Issue’s royal wedding shop collection