I never think of Francis Hamel as simply a landscape painter. Some of the first paintings I saw, and later exhibited, used Greek myths as a starting point. This subject matter demanded an appropriate setting and the trees, topiary and terracing he invented in his small studio in Islington gave a formal quality to the pictures which worked well. However, what immediately drew me to his work was the architectural quality of these paintings – each element in the picture, be it a tree or a figure, felt incredibly solid and believable. He would use strong shadows to define the shape of an object and set those objects squarely in the picture, each one fitting into a carefully considered scheme. The resulting pictures had the appearance of landscape, but in effect these were an arrangement of natural objects minutely choreographed by the artist.
Then he left London and moved to North Oxfordshire. By chance he had found a cottage on the Rousham Estate to rent and it was as if he had moved into the paintings that up till now he had only imagined. The house and its surroundings were entirely designed by William Kent. The landscape had been shaped and the gardens, trees and statuary had been mapped out by Kent to form one of the most complete and well-preserved schemes created by any architect. Horace Walpole wrote that Kent saw ‘all nature as a garden’: the elements in themselves were natural, but fitted together to create something that went beyond nature and that at times appears almost surreal. Not a single view had failed to be considered, not only at the time of construction but as they were to appear years later as the gardens matured.
Instead of painting from his imagination, Hamel now began to paint from nature. Yet Rousham embodied so much that was already present in his paintings that this fundamental change in technique appeared to cause no noticeable interruption in his work. Though mythological fantasies were still to appear occasionally in his landscapes, as subjects they were successfully replaced by the follies, statuary and, later, the strangely archaic-looking English Longhorn cattle, residents at Rousham from the beginning, that are all elements in the Rousham design.
Five years after moving there the impact of Rousham on his work is still considerable. His studio, which he and the owners restored, is in Kent’s magnificent stable block. With a stove keeping it warm in winter, the room must be an exquisite place to work. Francis says it has the same sobering atmosphere as sitting down to write in some grand old library. Of course for a large part of this year Rousham was all but sealed-off due to the precautions against foot and mouth. The herd of longhorn are in some way as priceless as the architecture and even for an artist it meant consider able caution in ones movements. The grounds were closed to the public and visitors and their cars disinfected before being allowed through the gates. When we were doing our final preparations for the exhibition, since it was closed to the public, Francis had been allowed to arrange all his paintings around the Great Hall of the main house which was of a similar size to the gallery. To see the paintings – even frameless and propped against the wall – in Kent’s beautifully proportioned room was unforgettable and only confirmed in my mind that after five years working in Rousham, the rhythm of his surroundings had embedded itself irretrievably into Hamel’s painting. I cannot attempt to repeat the effect of that brief, informal viewing, but aside from persuading you to see the paintings in the gallery I also hope that, once reopened, they might persuade you to visit the place that has been such an inspiration.
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