Oxford Today – University Magazine

Painting the most colourful professors
By Christina Hardyment, January 2016

Francis Hamel considers his oil sketches of 
the professors painted so far 

Francis Hamel, Magdalen, 1978

Artist Francis Hamel is celebrating the first 25 years of the University’s Cameron Mackintosh Professorship of Contemporary Theatre by painting all of its postholders – from distinguished actors and impresarios to playwrights, designers and directors.

Francis Hamel’s landscapes, murals and portraits are sought after by collectors from all over the world, but Oxfordshire is his heartland. In 2012, he celebrated his love of the city itself with an exhibition of paintings which showed the city in all moods and weathers, with its ancient stones strikingly set against such modern trimmings as traffic lights, umbrellas, cars, yellow lines, and signposts. His first school was in North Oxford and, after winning a place at Magdalen, he chose to study at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art, where he took advantage of the inspired teaching of Jane Greenham and enjoyed the University’s richly diverse culture. For the last two decades he and his family have lived in a courtyard cottage in the gardens of the great seventeenth century house of Rousham.

He greets me with an understandably preoccupied look when I call by. He is in the middle of a startlingly demanding commission: celebrating the first quarter century of the University’s Cameron Mackintosh Professorship of Contemporary Theatre by painting portrait heads of all 25 of the distinguished actors, impresarios, playwrights, designers and directors who have held it. The one-year post, established in 1990 to promote student interest in contemporary theatre, was endowed by the Cameron Mackintosh Foundation, and is allied to a Fellowship at St Catherine’s College. The first holder was Stephen Sondheim, the second Ian McKellen. During their yearlong tenure, the professors give an inaugural lecture open to the general public on a topic of their choosing, and run termly student workshops and seminars. The current holder is Simon Russell Beale; the last was Stephen Fry.

Set designer John Napier sitting for Hamel

We stroll over to Hamel’s elegantly proportioned studio in Rousham’s former stableblock, which was designed in Palladian style by William Kent, who also planned the gardens. An ancient birdcage hangs from the lofty ceiling. Sturdy chairs flank a glowing wood-burning stove and art books and cds fill a tall bookshelf. Easels loom in corners, and a long work-bench holds an armoury of much-used brushes and palette knives and a confusion of well-squeezed tubes of paint. Along another bench are propped a dozen or more portraits in various stages of completion. The actors are instantly recognisable (a forthright Diana Rigg, a quizzical Ian McKellan), the playwrights and directors less so. ‘Directors don’t like to be painted. They prefer to be the ones doing the looking’. Unfinished as the paintings are, their casually juxtaposed effect is remarkably alive. I stifle an urge to move them around, to let Thelma Holt chat to Alan Ayckbourn and Richard Eyre to Arthur Miller.

As if reading my mind, Hamel rises from his chair and rearranges the canvases. Clearly, new ideas are rising in his head. ‘I work on all of the paintings as I go along, changing and adding and subtracting. The whole enterprise is given added depth because so many of the professors have worked with each other at one time or another. Painting a new subject often informs earlier ones.’

Hamel began work early in 2015, and hopes to finish in 2016. As the professors visit Oxford only occasionally, most sittings involve his travelling to their homes. This is time-consuming and has its difficulties (‘imagine a surgeon having to operate on a kitchen table rather than in hospital’), but is also illuminating. Squashed in a corner of Diana Rigg’s Chelsea flat, gazing at the Anthony Gormley figure rising from the Thames behind Ian McKellen’s house, and painting Peter Schaffer as he sat utterly still at the oak table of his New York apartment all gave Hamel a more complete sense of his subject. Sondheim is fascinated by all things cryptic and game boards hang on the walls of his dining room; they are now hinted at behind the outline of his head.

‘I like my sitters to talk, as I learn a huge amount from the shifting collage of their features during conversation. It contributes to the narrative that is conveyed in the painting.’ Two of the early holders, Richard Attenborough and Arthur Miller, have died, so Hamel had to work from photographs, film footage. ‘I also asked their friends if the painting felt like the person they’d known’. 

Ian McKellen, the second Cameron Mackintosh
professor, sitting for his portrait

The heads are painted life-size, and each canvas is 33cm wide by 43 cm high. ‘I want the collection to work as a whole’, Hamel explains. ‘It might be very effective if they could hang in five rows of five. I’m considering identical simple gilded frames, with different colours for the outside edges.’ However they are finally arranged, the portraits will undoubtedly constitute a unique and extraordinary visual celebration of the first 25 years of a unique and extraordinary Oxford institution.

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