By Colin Harrison
“Damn the man”, how various he is!’Gainsborough’s famous exclamation about his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, reflected impatience with his behaviour as well as admiration for his art. In return, Reynolds devoted his fourteenth annual discourse at the Royal Academy, on 10 December 1788, to an extended eulogy of Gainsborough, “one of the greatest ornaments of an Academy”. Whereas Reynolds generally believed that the role of the Academy was to teach history painting, the highest and most intellectual genre, he willingly acknowledged that Gainsborough, in both his portraits and his landscapes, excelled. Among the reasons for this success, the principal was “his manner of forming all the parts of his pictures together”, unlike the piecemeal approach of artists such as Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni, who finished one part of the canvas at a time. In surveying the work of Francis Hamel, it is impossible not to admire both his variety and his apparent facility. In fact, his subjects show him to be a true heir of the eighteenth century: landscapes, portraits of people and trees, views of Oxford, still lifes, circuses and street fairs, even an idiosyncratic group portrait which might qualify as a form of history painting. (Crazy Gang, page 13)
Francis studied not at the Royal Academy Schools, but at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. Founded by John Ruskin in 1871 with the purpose not of educating artists, but of encouraging students to see their surroundings better, the Ruskin School had long since abandoned its founder’s extremely prescriptive methods, of copying from an eclectic collection of works on paper, ranging from masterpieces in engraving by Albrecht Dürer in watercolour by Ruskin’s great artistic hero, J.M.W. Turner, down to ephemeral reproductions from cheap journals. By 1982, when Francis came up to Oxford, the School had overcome the vicissitudes of the 1950s, when the first Professor of the History of Art, Edgar Wind, had publicly suggested that an art school had no place in a self-respecting university. The Ruskin Master, Philip Morsberger, was very easy-going, and Francis learnt most from the inspired teaching of Jane Greenham. Her husband, Peter, was the greatly admired Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools between 1964 and 1985, and Francis has followed the Greenhams’ precepts all his life. Eschewing abstraction and gimmickry, they taught that artists should draw constantly, almost obsessively, in preparation for their paintings. Francis does not exhibit his drawings, but there must be abundant portfolios in his studio, just as there are of Peter and Jane Greenhams in theirs. It is this direct connection between the subject and the artist’s imagination, whether it is a portrait of a Cameron Mackintosh Professor or a tree, that is so distinctive about Francis Hamel’s paintings.
Francis Hamel has held two exhibitions of paintings of Oxford, in 2003 and 2012. His views follow in a long tradition dating back to the middle of the eighteenth century. The German violinist, John ‘Baptist’ Malchair, who settled in Oxford in 1759, was among the first to explore not just the celebrated set pieces of the High Street, the façade of Christ Church with Sir Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, and so on, but also the more picturesque views from the hills to the west, south, and east, and the unexpected stable yards and byways. Malchair took his pupils on expeditions in the surrounding countryside, encouraging them to compose their view carefully before they began drawing; and to make accurate notes of weather, and the exact time and date of their drawings. Later, J.M.W. Turner was fascinated by Oxford throughout his life – one of his most important early commissions was to paint watercolours to be reproduced in the Oxford Almanack, published by the University Press every year since 1674. It was appropriate that Francis Hamel was selected to join the long line of distinguished artists to provide the illustration for the Oxford Almanack for 2010. His sunlit depiction of the main range of Wadham College is typically Romantic, for there is an innate generosity in Francis’s view of Oxford. Even the horrors of the Cornmarket, (page 133) now lined
from end to end with chain stores and restaurants, though often in historically important buildings, seem exotic in the rain, the paving stones glistening and the umbrellas (page 130) creating an effect more familiar in Paris in the Second Empire than England in the twenty-first century. Despite this romanticism, Francis does not shirk modernity, but indeed emphasises the bollards, and traffic lights, and the triangular traffic signs which add an essential element of red to the scene. Unlike most landscape artists, he is not afraid of people, but it is his trees that seem to define his views, from the ancient chestnut in the Turl, to the noble poplars in Port Meadow.
The exhibition ‘A Certain Tree’, held in 2017, coincided with the national celebrations organised by the Woodland Trust to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, and the launch of the Charter for Trees, Woods, and People.That year also saw the publication of Christiana Payne’s magisterial survey of Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870. There, the author notes that, although trees were celebrated in English literature from the Renaissance onwards, their study by artists really began in the parks of wealthy landowners in the 1760s, with Paul Sandby at Windsor and elsewhere. Later, Constable made large and meticulous studies of elms and oaks, which he incorporated into his celebrated views of the countryside at East Bergholt, or Salisbury, where the arching trees echoed the cathedral in their religious feeling. Before he went to Italy, Samuel Palmer was told by John Linnell in 1828 that he could make £1000 a year from selling nature studies. His drawings of the village of Shoreham and its surroundings are imbued with a conscious sense of spirituality, none more so than the three studies of the ancient oaks and chestnuts in Lullingstone Park, which still survive and were already hundreds of years old when Palmer portrayed them. Drawing manuals in England and France in the late eighteenth Windsor and elsewhere. Later, Constable made large and meticulous studies of elms and oaks, which he incorporated into his celebrated views of the countryside at East Bergholt, or Salisbury, where the arching trees echoed the cathedral in their religious feeling. Before he went to Italy, Samuel Palmer was told by John Linnell in 1828 that he could make £1000 a year from selling nature studies. His drawings of the village of Shoreham and its surroundings are imbued with a conscious sense of spirituality, none more so than the three studies of the ancient oaks and chestnuts in Lullingstone Park, which still survive and were already hundreds of years old when Palmer portrayed them. Drawing manuals in England and France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrated how to make portraits of trees, delineating their individual anatomy and character. Yet it is curious how few great artists have concentrated on them. Turner, for example, understood the importance of trees in his compositions, but more often than not, they are Italian pines or indeterminate species transplanted into the British countryside. The celebration of trees became a peculiarly British obsession: John Evelyn’s Silva: or a Discourse of Forest-Trees… first published in 1664, was hugely influential in encouraging landowners to plant trees for economic reasons; while Jacob George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, distinguished for their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty (1822) celebrated particular specimens such as the Panshanger Oak. John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, published in eight volumes in 1838, was intended to encourage landowners to plant ‘a greater variety of trees and shrubs in their plantations and pleasure-grounds’; and by the end of the century, a huge number of exotic varieties had been introduced into the British landscape. Many were made familiar by artists travelling in Italy, such as Samuel Palmer, whose study of cypress trees at the Villa d’Este was later incorporated into one of his illustrations to Charles Dickens’s Pictures from Italy (1846). An even more itinerant artist, Edward Lear, was mortified that his huge painting of The Cedars of Lebanon, based on studies made on the spot in 1858 but painted in his London studio in winter, was not snapped up for the 700 guineas he asked.
In his tree paintings, Francis Hamel once again continues in a long lineage of artists. The majestic oaks in the park at Rousham might have been painted by James Ward, or even Gustave Courbet, whose Oak Tree at Flavey (1864) presents a similarly close-cropped composition. The stone pines, cypresses, and poplars of Italy were first depicted by artists accompanying Grand Tourists; John Robert Cozens, for example, incorporated them into his breathtaking panoramic views of the Alban hills and lakes and the Roman campagna while travelling with William Beckford. And the cedar trees which now decorate the ground floor of Fortnum and Mason, (Page 13) and are the only happy element in the miserable reorganisation of the famous ground floor grocery, are true heirs to Edward Lear’s. However, Francis has introduced a new species to the portraiture of trees, the baobab, (page 44) which most of us first met in the pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. All these paintings are the result of very close observation of individual specimens, their foliage, structure, and bark, and their relationship to their surroundings. This is what makes them so satisfying.
In a recent interview, the distinguished Academician Dame Paula Rego declared that she never drew trees, because they were much more difficult than hands. When I told this to Francis, he replied, “She’s right, but at least they don’t move and don’t complain that their noses are too big”. It is remarkable how few artists who might be characterised as primarily landscape painters were also successful portrait painters. Gainsborough is the obvious exception – he wrote that he painted portraits for money, and landscapes for pleasure. Apart from a single self-portrait, neither Turner nor Samuel Palmer painted portraits. John Constable did, but it is difficult to share Lucian Freud’s admiration for what are essentially provincial productions, lacking character and subtlety. Francis Hamel’s education has enabled him, like Peter Greenham, to paint portraits and interiors as successfully as landscapes. Unlike Freud, he does not see his sitters as inanimate objects to be treated like still lifes, but as lively and interesting human beings who might imminently begin a conversation. Even when he has had to work from photographs, most notably in the recent mural of the Crazy Gang for the Victoria Palace Theatre,(page 13) he has found an immediacy which vividly brings back their riotous behaviour even though most of them died in the 1960s and 1970s.
As an exact contemporary of Francis Hamel, I have begun to wonder where the past thirty years have gone. He at least must have the satisfaction of knowing that his output has been extraordinary, both varied and consistent. Gainsborough would surely have recognised a kindred spirit, who has always been sustained by a “feeling of constant amazement”.
Colin Harrison is the Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford