Oxford Mail – Piazza Magazine

‘Oxfordshire Journey’ by Peter Unsworth, December 2000

LOOK for the ordinary, the every-day happening and you can be sure to come across the unusual. Peter Unsworth, still on his Oxfordshire Journey, finds an artist in the outbuildings of one of the county’s most picturesque houses 
Pictures: Jon Lewis

Oxford Mail Piazza Magazine 
December 2000LIFE in ten years’ time will be pretty rough for the house sparrow or the wren living in Spain.

So the Friends of the Earth global warming co-ordinator tells me, via the miracle of the modern-day wireless.

Peering through the car windscreen whose wipers can barely cope with the torrential rain, I reckon that if things go on as they are, a journey to the Iberian peninsula for sparrow, wren or humans might only offer the choice between being drowned here or fried there.

I ponder on the role of a global Warming co-ordinator. Are they in a position to advise, say, the government of Burkina Faso how best to handle temperature increases in a country where it is pretty sticky at the best of times? Or to suggest to those northern lands where winter lasts five months of the year that openings in attracting package-holiday sunseekers might be just around the next iceberg?

Today concern is focused on the rain-soaked, flood-threatened men and women of Oxfordshire whose immediate risk to their welfare is a serious attack of foot rot. Rain running off the nose end of even the most attractive among us spoils the overall picture. But where to find these drenched Oxonians? Best get off the main road and head for a village or two.

Deddington? Been there. Wootton? Same again. Rousham. Ah. I haven’t set foot in the place since actor George Baker was around, his family young and the television role of Inspector Wexford years ahead. I do recall it was beautiful, held in something of a time warp yet no museum oddity.

It is a narrow lane from the old Banbury-Oxford road and the presence and unusual sight of a massive tractor, being towed by one of equal height and girth, holds up progress.

It is pointless trying to attract their attention. They are unlikely to stop and talk. They are in their dry and lofty cabs, possibly tuned in on Radio Five as I am to the doom-dispensing global warming co-ordinator. A sign catches my eye Gardens open today 10am to 4.30pm. The time is one minute past ten, so why not?

Perhaps there are some honest gardeners doing their bit in spite of the climate. If they can tolerate torrent among the topiary, they can rely on me to stand shoulder to shoulder.

But what sort of idiot will trundle around the beautiful Rousham House gardens on a day like this unless he or she must? Hardly the conditions to attract the Women’s Institute from Nether Wherever or the gardening society from Perennial-in-the-Wold.

There is a handsome-looking bull in the field to the left. He’s a long horn, which if memory serves, thrive at Rousham. He is wet, possibly annoyed with it all, apparently robbed of all female company and unlikely to appreciate more than a passing wave. The car park is virtually deserted and if there are any official guides to the gardens they are safely tucked away.

In fact the place looks deserted; magnificent buildings and grounds with not a soul to enjoy them.

I find the ticket office – or rather the ticket machine – in a recess off the courtyard. A bit impersonal, but who wants to stand around in all weathers hoping the punters might drop in?

It is midway through making the decision – to garden or not to garden – that a young man with a shock of wavy hair, wearing jeans, stylish denim shirt and waistcoat comes into view.

He crosses the courtyard before entering a building on the opposite side. I am still deliberating when he returns.

For an opener I say I haven’t been here for some years. He suggests nothing much will have changed. I reply that it hasn’t, although there is a wheelie bin where once a galvanised dustbin stood. Quickly we come to agreement that Rousham is a pretty nice place to be now or in the past. It is always pleasing when one’s opinion coincides with that of a new-found friend.

Is he a worker on the estate? No. His name is Francis Hamel and he’s an artist. Behind us is his studio. Would I like to see it?

Some decisions in life are better than others, but to accept the offer proves to be a winner. To begin with there is a wonderful wood-burning fire, belting out the sort of warmth guaranteed to dispel to gloom of the day. Canvasses of all sizes, the subjects varying from portraits to the surreal, still life to landscape,familiar to the hauntingly magical. There is much to see and admire.

There are a couple of easy chairs, wrought iron candleholders; long benches covered in paints and brushes, the occasional cobweb, a spindly palm plant, flag stones worn by the feet of centuries, bottles, jars, enormous sash windows and a massive door to the studio itself – so characterful that were it able to speak would surely spout for hours on the history of Rousham and its occupants.

THROW insome of the classical music which my host enjoys, and I am transported to a world quite unfamiliar to me in every respect. Gazing down from a large painting is the long horn bull of my earlier encounter. Francis identifies him as Quaker. I am delighted he has a name. Such a magnificent beast deserves to be known by more than a number and its reproduction record.

Francis is currently working on several commissions as well as preparing for his next exhibition in London. There is an air of urgency, but not oppressively so. There is order without regimentation, deadlines withoutdespration.

Francis is 37. He was born in Coventry, the son of an Anglican clergyman who moved from the Midlands to Marylebone when Francis wai in his teens.

He was educated at Summer Fields School in north Oxford, then from 1982 to 1985 at Magdalen College, but in particular at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing. He returned to London where he began the arduous task of establishing himself. It was not easy, but painting was his passion. It still is. He cannot think of anything else he could or would wish to do.

I do not get the impression he starved in a garret in the capital, but times were occasionally difficult. Nothing is achieved without sacrifice, and he made a few of these as he worked to establish his reputation.

But grow it did and his work took him abroad on various commissions. The colours and flavours of different lands are evident in much of his work. It was while he was in London in about 1987, working from a studio in the King’s Road, Chelsea, that he first met Sir Cameron Mackintosh. The impresario wanted a painting for his home, a special sort of painting and after a couple of false starts by other artists, Francis was able to come up with what he wanted.

This was the start of an association which still flourishes. He has since travelled to America to paint a mural for his Manhattan apartment. Arriving in New York with scenes of Provence in his head and hoping to transfer them to blank walls on a flat 14 storeys up can be daunting, he says.

But more of Sir Cameron later.

Five and a half years ago Francis was already married to Rachel, an interior designer. They decided to move out of London. As yet there was no family (today there is three-and-a-half year old Luke and 18-month old Emerald) but both felt the capital was no place to bring up children.

Francis’s brother Richard had a houseboat on Port Meadow. What could be better? A delightful place to live and enough inspiration just beyond the gangplank to fill scores of canvasses.

Was it cramped to live and paint in the confines of a narrowboat? Not really. Much of his work was done out of doors.

A YEAR later they decided on a move to somewhere more permanent and Garden Cottage, Rousham, which had once been a laundry, became their new home.

He was able to find a studio on the estate, but soon afterwards the splendid room which is now Francis’s workplace became available.

It is obvious from his work that Francis enjoys painting trees. There are quite a few to inspire around Rousham. Throw in the house, its amazing collection of buildings and the beautiful gardens and his subject matter is right under his nose.

But how he adds the unusual to what seems the ordinary is the special magic in his art. For example, he is working on a painting of the estate’s formal garden for an admirer of his work in Lancashire. The neat hedges and the church beyond are there, but so are some strange creatures that might – just might – venture out when no-one else is looking.

Back to Cameron Mackintosh. Francis is currently working on a triptych – three portraits in one – of the man in different poses.

Francis reckons that to simply paint a single piece of work would fail to convey the character and energy of the man. It is certainly different without being in the least obscure. I have a distinct feeling that man will be delighted with it.

Within the past year he has worked in various countries as his reputation continues to grow, but he admits that packing his brushes and leaving his wife and family is not easy these days. The delights of family life are strong. But he knows that the life he has chosen makes demands on everyone. He is only as good as his last commission.

He will admit to being fortunate. Having a wide circle of acquaintances usually opens doors to other circles, but these doors do not swing on their hinges by divine right. Talent and enterprise must accompany him.

WE both agree luck – call it what you will – needs a little help to thrive.

He does not take his growing reputation for granted and knows that success only comes and survives with perseverance, dedication and caring for that talent he is blessed with having.

I could willingly stay for much longer at the studio and discuss this and that with such pleasant company as Francis, but commissions call and oils do not apply themselves.

The rain has stopped, so I’ll venture out. But not to the gardens. This joy will have to wait for another day. And as for those soaked Oxonian honest toilers… well, tomorrow is another day.
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