Sarah Mayhew Craddock speaks to an acclaimed Oxfordshire-based artist
The son of a clergyman and an English teacher, the artist Francis Hamel was born in London in 1963. He studied at Summer Fields prep school in Summertown and, perhaps pivotally, Marlborough College, where he was taught by a teaching team of respected artists, before he progressed to The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, at Oxford.
Hamel now lives and works in the estate buildings at Rousham House a half dozen miles or so north of Kidlington with his wife and two children.
As with almost all notable artists, nothing is perfectly conventional.
On paper, his upbringing appears conservative, though his life was clearly always laced with a certain steely romance.
Hamel’s studio is located beneath the old grooms’ quarters and hayloft in the eminent English architect, landscape architect and furniture designer of the early 18th century, William Kent’s, old stable block.
Largely left alone but for the introduction of a few battered armchairs and a wood-burning stove to enable Hamel to take the chill off out of the old stone and work through the winters, the studio space is still very much true to its original form.
Surrounded by the perfectly preserved pomp of Rousham House and Gardens’ parterre, pigeon house, espalier apple trees, and the long-horn cattle in the park, Hamel has positioned himself in an irrefutably theatrical setting
However, despite being open daily to the public, Rousham is refreshingly uncommercial in that visitors aren’t herded around a circuit and led to exit through the gift shop.
The place retains an intimacy that Hamel feels at ease with and inspired by. He describes Rousham as: “A bit of Italy imported… blended with England, and lovingly tended.”
It was at Summer Fields that Hamel first came across Rousham on a trip with the school’s chaplain. Hamel recalls such trips fondly.
“He would cram his 1954 Bentley with Summer Fields boys and take us on visits to churches, and country houses, that was the first time I saw Rousham.”
Little did Hamel know at the time where fate would lead him, “Years later, when I was living on a barge in 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 (the proprietor), 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 which time, Hamel had married Rachel, an interior designer.
Settled in this idyllic corner of the county where he takes his inspiration from his environs, Hamel explained: “I love contrived landscapes, and Rousham is very contrived… the idea of the garden as a bit of wilderness ‘house-trained’ or domesticated has huge appeal to the landscape painter.”
Though just as Hamel’s upbringing didn’t pan out as one might have expected, nor is his artistic inspiration predictably that of ponds and cascades, Kent’s Cold Bath or his seven arched Praeneste.
Upon graduating from the Ruskin, where he received classical training by today’s art school standards, Hamel trod the beaten path to London.
In the capital he indulged his delight in the large-scale and theatrical, honing his skills creating depth by painting murals for hotels, restaurants and private houses, designing and decorating furniture.
Tiring of the commercial nature of the career he found himself carving out, Hamel extricated himself from the city and fled to south-west France to paint on a smaller scale. It was the work that he created during this trip that really launched his career as an artist.
Inextricably linked to Oxfordshire, Hamel owes more than just his education to Oxford. He is known to have been a regular visitor to the Ashmolean, and he claims that work by the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca in the Ashmolean’s collection “taught me how to apply structural order to an apparently chaotic environment and how to connect figures to each other and the landscape”.
It is a skill that can clearly be identified in Hamel’s recent body of work based around Gifford’s Circus, which went on show at the Brian Sinfield Gallery in Burford on Sunday and continues until Saturday, April 4.
Last summer Hamel immersed himself in the magical musical village green touring Gifford’s Circus.
Losing himself in the sights, speeds, sounds and spectacle that are enjoyed by all at these sumptuous family affairs, he spent time sketching, observing and drinking in the delicious, rich atmosphere – colours, and momentum of the acrobats and audiences alike.
The experience has resulted in a captivating body of work that comprises approximately 30 new paintings, drawings and lithographs.
Curiously, or perhaps predictably in view of Hamel’s approach to his oeuvre, the work from this series that I have seen captures not the hubbub and applause, the spinning and the laughter; but the stillness, the rehearsals, the waiting in the wings, and the early morning light over the tents, all of which evoke a calm-before-the-storm kind of tension.
These works contain the same sense of the tamed, the ‘house-trained’ or domesticated as the landscaped gardens that Hamel is so drawn to.
Again surprisingly for the circus subject-matter, the paintings are made up of earthy, subtle tones, overlaid with strong, deep but not bright colour that creates enormous depth and gives the works a calm beauty and powerful gravity.
Whilst this is the first solo exhibition of Hamel’s work to be held at the Brian Sinfield Gallery, solo exhibitions of his work have also been held in Oxford, Milan and London. He is a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, and his work is held in private collections in many parts of the world, particularly in Japan, America, Russia and throughout Europe. With an eye for thought-provoking juxtapositions, impressively, though not surprisingly, Hamel has undertaken numerous important commissions and recently completed a portrait of the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
He has also undertaken several important private commissions, including a recent series of installed work for Fortnum & Mason; and his work can be found in the corporate and private collections of Goldman Sachs, Rolls-Royce, Sir Trevor Nunn, Lady Margaret Hall, Farrer and Co, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, The Prince of Wales Theatre, London and many others.
Francis Hamel has the uncanny ability to penetrate the surface of his subjects.
Looking back over his career Hamel has clearly acquired the knowledge and understanding of the county, and the people that live within it and use it, to capture a true reflection of Oxfordshire inside and out.
Never taking the conventional route, Hamel’s new series of work showing Oxfordshire at play exemplifies exactly that knowledge and understanding of the county.