David Remfry: Hollywood puppy love at the Chelsea Hotel

Portraits by the British-born painter celebrate the relationship between dogs and their owners


Having housed some of history’s most famed writers, poets, musicians and artists, New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel is remembered for its wild, creatively fecund and often tragic past.

Andy Warhol famously threw up on the hotel’s dining room carpet during a fundraising luncheon organised by his patron Peggy Guggenheim. Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin enjoyed a secret tryst here, as did Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal. Stanley Kubrick penned 2001: A Space Odyssey at the hotel while Nancy Spungen met a grizzly end in Room 100 when she was stabbed by her lover Sid Vicious. From bohemian love-ins and spells of creative genius to decadent parties and death - the Chelsea Hotel has seen it all.

The hotel was closed to guests in 2011 for extensive renovation works which are still ongoing and many of the 100 long-term residents who were allowed to stay have since moved on. But despite this exodus, it’s hard to associate the iconic address with a quieter tempo or as a place where A-listers might have curled up with a cup of tea, as opposed to drunkenly stagger around the place in a hedonistic whiskey haze - though perhaps that was just Dylan Thomas. The poet apparently drank 18 straight drams in his Chelsea Hotel room before slipping into a coma.

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And yet - in more recent times at least - the Chelsea Hotel has possessed a softer, more relaxed identity, thanks to this one-time artistic community of residents, among them British-born painter David Remfry who occupied an apartment at the hotel from 1996-2016. Best know for his life-sized watercolours of urban scenes and night clubs, Remfry spent 15 years on a series of portraits that celebrate the relationship between dogs and their owners. Among his sitters are a string of high-profile names, including the actress Susan Sarandon who posed for the artist with her pups Penny and Rigby.

“I think there’s a little bit of a softness that comes into [the sitters’] demeanour when they’re with their dogs,” explains the 77-year-old Royal Academician. “Dogs have canny way of knowing how you are feeling and responding to people. They are floozies most of them! They just want you to love them and it’s not too difficult.”

Remfry’s portrait of a reclining Alan Cumming with his dog Honey (below) summons a sense of calm and reassurance. The artist has deftly captured the special language of trust that exists between the actor and his pet; in that moment, they are a unit: companions and inseparable sofa slobs.

His etching of a languid Ethan Hawke and his dog Nina (below) is similarly touching. The actor looks like he’s chatting to his furry friend while she is only half listening, her rigid pose betokening a sense of protectiveness.

An exhibition, titled We Think the World of You: People and Dogs Drawn Together by David Remfry, is currently on show until 3 January 2021 at Woking’s Lightbox gallery. The show includes 18 portraits completed at the Chelsea Hotel.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that one of these canine tributes might one day find its way home? While it’s clear that the Chelsea Hotel will never be the same again, the barking mad antics that went on behind its walls will surely never be forgotten.

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