Windows to Parallel Worlds

I travel a lot. Too much. Shortly after my wife and I first met—it was on our first dinner date— we realized that we were both nomads. How else would a Scots have met a Somali in New York City, at a time when neither of us was actually living there? As I write this essay, there lies before me a September of incessant mobility: to Washington, to Milan, to Barcelona, to Madrid, to Kiev, to Beijing, to Aspen, to London. It is never boring, but it is always tiring.

How to survive this perpetuum mobile? Each road warrior has his own traveller’s tricks. Mine include a single malt plus a single Tylenol-PM on take-off, noise-cancelling earbuds, a decent paperback, two double espressos on arrival, a run, a swim, a postprandial nap, and a dependable supply of clean socks. But these are mere palliatives. They’ll get you to sleep, then keep you awake, but they won’t stop you going slowly mad. Between the journeys there must be home. And on the walls of home there must be art.

The art of Francis Hamel has become my peculiar medication. I am not the type of person who counts such things, but I find that I own a surprisingly large number of Frank’s paintings—twelve alone in our principal abode in northern California, and as many in the other bolt-holes I call home. I did not set to be a collector of his work. It just happened, in the following way. The more I travelled and the further from the British Isles I lived, the more Frank’s paintings became indispensable to me—to the point that I can say without exaggeration that there is now nothing in the world that I enjoy buying more, as gifts for others as well as for myself.

Why? The answer, I think, is that the majority of Frank’s paintings offer permanently incandescent connections to tranquil places at exemplary moments. His intense, keen-eyed love for these locations radiates outward from the wall, infallibly touching the beholder. I know of few living artists with such a strong communicative power. The effect of hanging Frank’s paintings in our homes is therefore transformative. As I walk through the front door, back from the airport, I exult to see them. Each room seems to contain two kinds of window: the regular sort that look outside, and Frank’s apertures to other landscapes in parallel worlds.

It is true that most of these are worlds that he and I have shared. I have known Frank for more than thirty-five years. We met at Oxford. The first painting of his that I recollect was of his then girlfriend in the Magdalen Cloisters. It was one of a number of early works that the university inspired. But I own none of those, as I was as poor as he was in those days (so much so that, one summer, we were reduced to showing American visitors around on ‘Brideshead Tours’).

The more recent Oxford paintings, of which I own prints, connect me to a later time, when I was teaching at Jesus College, Frank was living at Rousham, and our children were attending the Dragon School. Small wonder traffic signals and signs loom so large in those paintings, not to mention the double yellow lines. Our lives in those days were to a painful extent constrained by Oxford’s restrictions on parking.

Like Philip Pullman’s Oxford, so memorably depicted in the trilogy His Dark Materials, Frank’s Oxford is a faded, rain-sodden beauty, the High Street only glamorous because sunshine after a downpour has momentarily given it the look of Venice’s Grand Canal. The exceptions are two very different works, to which I am devoted, of more bucolic spots: one of the Rainbow Bridge in the University Parks (left), the other of the magnificent poplars by the Isis on Port Meadow. To Contemplate either of these is to be transported to the unspoilt, timeless Oxford that we both came in search of in 1982—only to be consigned to the charmless Waynflete Building, which would not have looked out of place in Soviet Minsk.

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