David Shenton’s career as a queer illustrator began with a half-joking challenge to the early gay Press’s perception of gay art.
“In Gay News, [paintings] were usually this kind of soft porn – mainly male nudes…”
His own exhibition – elaborate flower paintings – had received what he described as ‘the campest review ever’ in The Guardian. But Gay News failed to pick up on it so he sent them a cartoon, cheekily entitled, Token Male Nude So We get a Write-up in the Gay Press.
When Gay News editor Dennis Lemon replied it wasn’t to offer a review – but to request more cartoons. The rest, as they say, is history.
David’s work has now appeared across a wide range of media. Queer publications include Gay News, Capital Gay and BOYZ as well as material produced for the Terrence Higgins Trust and the London Lighthouse Project. Beyond this he has contributed to a diverse range of publications ranging from The Guardian newspaper to The Optician magazine (with whom he worked for 25 years) and Health Education Authority material.
His work often incorporates some form of social commentary, be that a gentle mocking of some ‘scene queens’ or ridicule of police entrapment of gay men. When HIV/AIDS emerged one of the vehicles he used to address this was his character Stanley, who featured in regular columns in Gay News and Capital Gay. As David says, “…the character had to grow up and deliver serious stuff along with the slapstick.”
He has also written and/or illustrated a number of books including Stanley and the Mask of Mystery (1983), Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1986), Bananas Are Not the Only Fruit (1993), The Queer Cook Book (“200 recipes and tips for favourite gay dishes…a guided tour to the secrets of success in the homosexual kitchen” (1996)) and the queer manga Get Her in 2008.
Stanley and the Mask of Mystery has generated two very different offshoots. One was ‘The Cottaging Game’ – a board game based around the ‘adventure’ of ‘cottaging’ – seeking sex in sheltered public places. With participants including gay men, policemen, casual cottagers and bashers it’s little surprise that possible destinations include ‘Hospital’ and ‘Police Station’ as well as ‘Home’. Sadly, the game was never produced commercially: only 20 copies were made for a retrospective of David’s work a few years ago.
The other outcome from ‘Mask of Mystery‘ was a rather more serious one. When the book was included in a local library’s clearance sale it was bought by a female magistrate. Thinking it was a children’s book she gave it to her one of her grandchildren. Only then did she discover her mistake.
However, far from taking responsibility for her error, she decided that the book was, in fact, a cunningly disguised piece of paedophile propaganda. She promptly contacted that bastion of liberal-thinking – The Daily Mail – and soon there were calls for David to be prosecuted. The issue was only resolved following the intervention of Labour MP Tessa Jowell.
David’s work continues today on social media with his Facebook page These Foolish Things. The following video, filmed during a retrospective of David’s work gives a great overview of his work.