Country Life Magazine

‘Leaping the Fence’ by Mary Miers, 2012

Mary Miers is captivated by her first visit to Rousham, where she meets a resident artist whose work is inspired by William Kent’s landscape and nearby Oxford

Francis Hamel at work in his studio, 
in the Rousham stable block
VIEWED from outside, the Garden Cottage at Rousham is fairly unassuming – the former laundry range, set long and low across one side of a courtyard in the shadow of a great garden wall. Yet it stands at the heart of one of the finest 18th-century landscapes in England and inside has been transformed with that informal accretion of colour, texture and objects that belongs to a particular strain of slightly bohemian, English artistic taste. For a painter who believes that ‘what an artist and a gardener do are quite similar’, Francis Hamel could not have chosen a more idyllic place to live. ‘I love contrived landscapes and Rousham is very contrived,’  he says of this Arcadian corner of Oxfordshire. ‘The idea of the garden as a bit of wilderness “house-trained” or domesticated has huge appeal to the landscape painter.’

The garden is, of course, William Kent’s ‘miraculously clever’ early masterpiece -that ‘landmark in tlie history of the Romantic movement’ which embodied Picturesque ideals decades before they became fashionable as an aesthetic theory. Dating from the 1730s and uniquely unaltered, Rousham still captivates visitors with its inventive use of eye-catchers, serpentine forms and water. ‘A bit of ltaly imported… blended with England and lovingly tended,’ Francis has written.

Calling by recently with an old schoolfriend he hadn‘t seen for years, we were treated to an impromptu tour. We found the artist immersed in a Saturday morning’s domesticity making a cake with his daughter, but, unperturbed by the intrusion, he whisked us out into the pleasure grounds, where he knows every line and leaf and can elucidate on each ornamental structure, statue and sham ruin-‘some basically cowsheds with finials’.

We follow the meandering rill along wooded paths from Venus’s Vale, with its ponds and cascades in rusticated arches, remembering Horace Walpole’s famous quote: ‘He leaped the fence, and saw all Nature was a garden.’ ‘Kent wasn’t a good painter but he was a great furniture designer,’ Francis tells us as we stop to admire the Praeneste, with its seven pedimented arches and semi-circular grisaille benches overlooking a bend in the River Cherwell. A failed painter perhaps, but Kent certainly knew how to compose Classical scenes from Nature as if they were paintings.

As an artist, Francis derives continual sustenance from this landscape, although ‘there are lots of things I love at Rousham that I would never paint. I usually know immediately whether something will work as a painting and these don’t work for me, not in that way,’ he says, guiding us through the three 17th-century walled gardens with their circular dovecote and box parterres, espaliered fruit trees, flower borders and beds of kitchen produce. ’My paintings are not necessarily of the obvious things ­ although, for me, they’re always absolutely about the place.’
He praises the present owners of Rousham, Charles and Angela Cottrell-Dormer, for their tireless stewardship. The gardens are open to the public every day, yet everything is low-key, not tarted up; no tea shop or visitor centre. Rousham feels very different to a National Trust property and, as Francis says: ‘It isn’t massively grand like Stowe; there’s an intimacy about it.’

The estate buildings have also been largely left alone. Only a few strides from Garden Cottage is Kent’s stable block, where Francis has his studio beneath the grooms’ quarters and hayloft. He has replaced the old range with a wood-burning stove and introduced a few battered armchairs, but little else has changed.

It was to here that I returned recently to talk about his work and forthcoming exhibition. But first he tells me how he came be here: ‘At prep school, we had a chaplain called Henry Thorold, a figure straight from Trollope, who taught RE very badly, but was an enthusiastic architectural historian and wrote for the “Shell Guides”. He would cram his 1954 Bentley with Summer Fields boys and take us on visits to churches and country houses. That was how I first saw Rousham.

Oxford from Boar’s Hill

‘Years later, when I was living in a barge on Port Meadow in Oxford, my brother, a gardener, inspired me to revisit with his description of the rill. It was then that I bumped into Angela, who was showing somebody round a cottage. I said if they didn’t want to rent it, could I? They didn’t, and so in June 1997, we moved to Rousham’ (by then, he was married to Rachel, who runs an interior-design business).

The son of a clergyman and English teacher, Francis was brought up in London and educated at Marlborough, where he was taught art by Robin Child and the illustrator/engraver Simon Brett. The school’s legendary art department ‘turned a thread into a rope’ and he started landscape painting seriously at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing in Oxford. ‘You could still get a fairly classical training there, with proper life-drawing classes. It taught me to work from drawings, too.’

He returned to London and set up as a mural painter, working for hotels, restaurants and private houses and designing and decorating furniture. ‘It was fun, but it became too much of a business, so I went off to paint in south­west France.’ That culminated in a show in London in 1992, since when he has had 12 solo exhibitions. His mural work can be seen in several London theatres ­ Wyndham’s and The Prince of Wales – and at Fortnum & Mason . As a painter of landscapes, Francis has always been interested in exploring the relationship between the cultivated and uncultivated and he spends a few months a year in Italy, where he owns an old farmhouse and paints the hill country around Camerino in Le Marche. ‘All my landscapes start their lives out of doors, working directly from the subject. I’m always looking at the light and weather; the topographical accuracy varies. It’s about refining the information, deciding what to leave out, what to exaggerate, which sensations you want to try and capture.’

Cornmarket in the rainAs well as landscapes and some portrait commissions (he painted David Cameron in 2008), Francis has made a series of large, slightly surreal tree paintings inspired by the magnificent specimens in the park at Rousham. Stylised rather than naturalistic, they have a decorative quality reminiscent of his murals. ‘I draw trees all the time, but rarely do I make an accurate portrait of one. There’s a wonderful space enclosed within a tree; these paintings are more architectural than botanical.’

Several feature in his new exhibition, which revisits Oxford, with views inspired by the city and its surrounds. ‘Oxford is very important to me. I was at school and university here; my parents met here and lived nearby; I know it incredibly well.’ For all its beauty, not many people have painted it, he asserts. His own paintings of the city are not of the colleges. ‘I like painting cars, bollards and traffic signs, as well as the architecture.’ His street scenes often explore the expressive qualities of light and shade in rain. ’I like painting roads – their long, reflective surfaces are like riverscapes, with tarmac patches catching the light. I used to dread expanses of grass or tarmac, but now I relish them.’ By juxtaposing ancient and modern, Francis makes you look afresh at the city’s historic landmarks.

He visits the Ashmolean regularly and is deeply influenced by paintings of the Italian Renaissance, in particular those of Piero della Francesca, ‘who taught me how to apply structural order to an apparently chaotic environment and how to connect figures to each other and the landscape’. Works in his exhibition, such as Cornmarket inthe Rain, show how Francis has responded to this lesson. ‘Pisarro is useful, too; the Ashmolean has quite a few of his landscapes, which I’ve been looking at recently.’

It is fitting that Francis should have returned to Oxford for his latest exhibition, for the city, together with Rousham and Italy, remains central to his life and experiences, and continues to shape his artistic development.

‘Francis Hamel – Oxford Paintings 2012’ is at The Magdalen Grove Auditorium, Magdalen College, Oxford, from November 30 to December 2, and then at John Martin Gallery, 38, Albemarle Street, Lond on WI, from December 5 to 22. 
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