Cotswold Life

Candia McCormack, March 2015

Oxfordshire artist Francis Hamel was struck by the glamour and alchemy of Giffords Circus when he took his children to a show. The result was time spent touring with Giffords and a series of remarkable paintings…

Francis Hamel working
Francis Hamel working

How did you come to spend time with Giffords Circus for your latest series, Francis?

I saw Giffords Circus with my children at Tetsworth nearly ten years ago. I had been to the Circus as a child in the 1960s, a big commercial circus with lion tamers and elephants; this was completely different and very compelling. I found Toti Gifford after the performance and asked him if he'd let me draw and paint the Circus as it toured. He agreed in return for a picture and the deal was done. I showed my first collection of paintings at The John Martin Gallery in London's Albemarle Street the following spring. The show was very well received.
This led me to do quite a lot of work in theatres and fairs and so, when Brian Sinfield suggested a second collection of pictures of Giffords Circus, I needed no encouragement.

What was the experience like, and how long did you spend with them?
I started in rehearsals at Folly Farm near Stow-on-the-Wold. A lifelong fear of being singled out by the pantomime dame quickly re-surfaced. For the final dress-rehearsal I realised that, apart from the company, I was the only member of the audience and that, as Tweedy the clown searched for someone to strap to a sheet of plywood to and throw daggers at, my face was reddening. This was my official introduction to the company.
I worked through the summer, usually behind the big top among the painted caravans, bunting and tents; with the company, their families, the animals and their carers. I sat in on many of the performances with pencils and paper and followed the performers back out into the fresh summer air afterwards. Various people sat for me, stood for me and occasionally stood on the back of a shire horse for me; I collected a mass of material. Reading Nell's book about the circus, the sense she gives is that a show has a life of its own, that it somehow exists independently and that the producer's job is not to make the show but to find it. Pictures sometimes seem to make themselves, like the puppets that cut their strings and dance on their own; paintings, once they're begun, seem to make a lot of their own decisions. A sort of partnership forms between the artist, the paints and the subject.
It was an enormous indulgence being able to spend all this time with Giffords as well as being hugely productive for me.

Your painting of David Cameron is a wonderfully human portrait of our Prime Minister. How did this come about?
I asked him a few years ago if he'd sit for me; it was just before he became Prime Minister. He was able to give me a sitting in Westminster, which was interrupted frequently by legions of people competing for his attention, and a sitting in my studio at Rousham where I was able to get some work done. The quid pro quo was that the painting could be used by the Conservative party to raise money. I enjoyed painting him and happily he and his wife were delighted with the finished painting.

What can we expect to see at the Brian Sinfield Gallery exhibition?
There will be 25 or so paintings of various sizes all in oil on linen canvas. They are all of the circus in various places: The Barringtons, Sudeley Castle, Frampton-on-Severn, the Oxford University Parks, etc. They feature the landscape, the circus tents and wagons as well as the horses, dogs, performers and performances. I have also done four stone lithographs which I'm very excited about.

Many of your pieces depict the landscape in and around Rousham where you live. It's a beautiful part of the country; how long have you been based there?
We moved to Rousham nearly 20 years ago, and the park and surrounding countryside are a constant influence. I love painting trees which are in ready supply; the longhorn cattle have made regular appearances in my work too as have the gardens.

What are you currently working on?
I have a big commission for St Catherine's College, Oxford, to paint a series of portraits of professors of contemporary theatre. I'm currently working on the first two pieces which are of Sir Richard Eyre and Stephen Sondheim. I will be doing some paintings of the gardens at Highgrove in the early spring, and for the rest of the year will be completing a large collection of landscape paintings, mainly England and Italy for a major show in London at The John Martin Gallery in November/December 2015.

See Circus Paintings 2015.


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