Courting the Canvas

As a trapeze artist flies through the air, there is that magical moment when she lets go of the bar and is suspended in awesome pause before grasping the hands of her companion swinging towards her.

It’s these fleeting moments of wonder that contemporary Cotswold artist Jeremy Houghton captures to perfection, leaving space for the viewer to fill the gap with imagination. The art of painting movement is tricky. How do you portray something in the process of flying, walking, running, galloping, or marching, when the result is two-dimensional and fixed? What comes before and after is part of the story yet cannot be revealed and expressed on canvas. There is always more to tell than what is seen.

But the essence of mystery is in that movement, which Jeremy somehow manages to embody with a flick of paint or a gestural mark. Right now, he is carrying out two contrasting residencies. One is with the Northampton Saints Rugby Team where he is creating a series of paintings celebrating both the Club’s players as well as celebrating some of the unsung heroes at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens. The other residency involves capturing the joyful theatrics of Giffords Circus, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2025 and is currently touring with AVALON, a show which immerses its audiences in a colourful medieval world of pageantry and Arthurian legend.

As Director Cal McCrystal exclaims, ‘Giffords Circus is so much more than a circus. To come to Giffords is to immerse yourself in another world and escape everyday life for a few blissful hours.’ Capturing that escapism, the adventure, romance, hilarity, and audience interactions is a challenge which Jeremy more than meets.

He is the right man for the job. As one of Britain’s most sought-after artists, Jeremy has carried out multiply residencies due to his adaptability and gift for capturing the very essence of what each residency is about. There is an inevitable flow to Jeremy’s work, in the process and the delivery of each painting or drawing. As he watches, his hands capture the movement of that moment. One gestural move with a pencil or paintbrush can speak volumes.

He captures the heart and soul of people and place required for each residency which follow three main themes: Royalty, Military and Sport.

In terms of royalty, Jeremy has carried out residencies at Windsor Castle for the late HM The Queen in 2014, as well as Highgrove in 2013, for King Charles III when he was HRH The Prince of Wales. Jeremy also had the opportunity to paint the late Queen in 2009. Personally, my favourite painting must be the fun-loving image ‘Ma’amalade?’ which captures the mischievous and uplifting conversation between a rather famous Bear and Her Majesty.

Jeremy’s military residencies have involved portraits of war veterans as Official Artist for the RAF Centenary in 2018, and Official Artist for the Falkland’s 40th Anniversary in 2022; whilst his sporting commissions have meant residencies at Wimbledon, London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, the America’s Cup, Goodwood, and Aston Martin.

But Jeremy’s signature flamingo portfolio, which began during 2011 in South Africa where he was Artist in Residence at Kamfer’s Dam, is still a vital part of his practice. Thirteen years ago, his vibrant, dynamic paintings helped raise awareness of these eye-catching endangered birds, and last year a visit to the Kalahari Desert inspired a brand-new collection. This time Jeremy used gold leaf to represent their importance and rarity.

His work acts as both research and a method of recording precious moments in history, precious people, and their stories. Each residency is different and provides fresh challenges.

For each one, those commissioning Jeremy give him the ideas, inspiration, and the deadlines, which he admits often takes him out of his comfort zones and forces him to ask new questions and try new things.

One residency seems to lead to the next. His 2019 residency for the Scouts came as a result of his moving series of portraits on Battle of Britain pilots to mark the centenary for the RAF.

‘To mark its 100th anniversary, the Scouts thought it would be good to choose 100 formidable inspirational scouting leaders and members of all ages, using portraits to tell their stories. I did get to meet some incredible people,’ recalls Jeremy.

‘As well as drawing them, I am also talking to them and interviewing them. It is a dual process. To hear from the horse’s mouth what these people have done and where they have come from, and how they are using Scouting as a tool to inspire and help others, is really empowering.’

‘I was at school with Bear Grylls, he was in my year, so I know Bear. It is amazing to think that he is a leader of an institution that has 52 million members,’ adds Jeremy.

The last time I wrote a feature on Jeremy for Cotswold Life was in 2017. Jeremy had just finished his MA by research at the University of Gloucestershire and was getting ready to carry out his residency at Wimbledon, involving fast tennis balls, players in action, wielding their rackets with powerful force and audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, then erupting in applause.

This month, Jeremy rekindles his connection with Wimbledon when he interviews former tennis player and Wimbledon commentator Sue Barker on June 27 at The Lygon Arms in Broadway, where many of paintings are on permanent display. Sue and Jeremy will discuss all things tennis as well as the paintings known as the Wimbledon Collection, which Jeremy completed as Championship artist.

Much has happened in the past seven years since we last spoke, including of course, COVID, which gave Jeremy time to down his tools, shut his studio, and focus on his family.

‘On reflection, I am a better painter now because of that break. I feel somewhat blessed to have had those months to park things, to give my eyes, my mind, and my hand a rest,’ says Jeremy, who has a studio just outside the village of Broadway. It is a 10-minute drive from Houghton Art, the high street gallery in Chipping Campden, where various new works can be viewed by appointment. It is a small working space for Jeremy’s team where the public can discuss commissions, exhibitions, and view his limited edition signed prints.

Our conversation switches to the contrast between the previous and current residencies. As official artist for the Falkland’s 40th anniversary in 2022, Jeremy tackled the sombre and sobering topic of war and produced a collection of poignant pieces inspired by memories from military veterans who fought in the conflict including Simon Weston. It is somewhat different to the uplifting, awe-inspiring wonder that Giffords Circus generates.

‘It’s refreshing, very nomadic. In Cape Town running the art school out there, I spent a lot of time in The Bush. You don’t hear a herd of elephants, which can be 20 or 30 elephants, until they are in front of you. And then a few minutes they are gone. It is like a building coming and going. With the circus, you have a huge tent, huge cast, the wagons, the whole train moving to the village or a field. It makes a huge impression and then it moves on,’ states Jeremy.

‘I have covered some serious things, and nothing more serious than war which is full of heartache, and hurt, and harm and it is awful. All the people I have painted that have been involved in war, be it the Battle of Britain veterans, or the Falkland’s veterans, and other people all say unanimously how dreadful war is and how it all costs and we should avoid it. They are all kind, peaceful people. It never leaves them. War leaves that nasty stain and is an awful legacy, but the legacy that Nell Gifford has left by creating this joyful experience in a world that we live in which has increasingly become more worrying, unstable, and volatile, is wonderful. It is great to have these magical moments of flow. As soon as you step inside the tent you are transported back to your childhood.’

The athleticism and skill are on par with sportsmen and women at championship level; the movement and rhythm like birds in flight, and the reaction from the circus audience captures the thrill and excitement pictured in supportive crowds cheering on their sporting giants.

‘These circus actors and acrobats are incredibly talented physically, what they do, albeit hanging from the ceiling, they are incredibly fit and agile. There is a commonality there with the movement. I am enjoying the music and dance. There is a link, a huge overlap with sporting athleticism, dancers and sport and to have the music as a beat, which carries on throughout the performance inspires the work. I can use this as a different type of inspiration to these pictures,’ he adds.

But of course, the new concept of the circus perhaps not seen in his previous residencies is the laughter, the childishness, the naivety and added hilarity caused by appearances of ducks and dogs carrying out their own unscripted acts.

‘The great thing about the circus is that it is not a professional sporting act. Northampton Saints are busting a gut to win the Championship. They are the best rugby players in the country. It is important that they win, jobs are at stake and if mistakes are made, it is serious. But in the circus, you almost want the dogs to make a mistake, you are looking for those little moments of humanity and normalness.’

It is the unpredictability and spontaneous moments that make a residency. Years ago, as a young law student, Jeremy recalls one lesson from his law degree, which is key in how he approaches each residency, no matter what subject matter.

‘One of the things I do remember is the concept of Mens rea, which means a guilty mind. How do you find a guilty mind? You must go over every aspect, analysing from every angle, the mental state of that person. In the same way I walked round and round Windsor Castle to get a really accurate perception as to what was happening inside the castle.’

‘For the Windsor Castle residency, my pictures and my drawings were my note taking. Before I start any paintings for a residency, I will spend a few days or longer wondering round with my sketchbook, doing tiny quick sketches which are my note taking and visual memories. It’s a process of distillation and refinement. You must find the angle, and my sketches help me do that.’

Movement and mood, expression and emotion are key components in Jeremy’s compositions. But there is something else which is important to note. Invariably, one will find in Jeremy’s paintings, parts that are left untouched and left blank. It mirrors the vital ingredients he looks for in his residencies.

‘Often the important aspects of a residency are those that go unseen or unsaid; they’re the bits I’m looking for. Likewise in paintings, you’ll find the bits that are left untouched are often the most intriguing,’ he states.

It’s this exploration of the potential of negative space to represent light, which Jeremy often references ‘ma.’ It’s the concept in Japanese aesthetics that translates roughly as ‘gap’ or ‘pause’, enabling his subjects to glimmer in the liminal territory between figuration and abstraction.

And this takes us nicely back to the beginning. Our eyes go upwards to the athletic circus act currently taking place in the centre of the Big Top, where acrobats are suspended from a rope, balancing by just their chin on a hoop and swirling round. Mouths are open and you can hear a pin drop. It’s these kinds of moments that Jeremy Houghton manages to capture with ease and excellence.

 

Cowboys Never Say Goodbye

Jeremy will be celebrating his 2024 residency for Giffords Circus with a series of Pop-Up exhibitions throughout the season called ‘Cowboys Never Say Goodbye’. This one-off collection of limited-edition prints and paintings by the renowned British artist captures the spirit of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and a flavour of our journey to medieval Avalon. He will be welcoming visitors to the Circus Sauce Tent where his Pop-Up gallery will be installed on the following dates from 5.30pm-7.30pm:

July 15:  Stonor Park in Henley-upon-Thames co-hosted with Lord Camoy

August 12: on picturesque Minchinhampton Common

September 11: from 6pm-8pm at Stratton Meadows in Cirencester.

For any further information please contact [email protected] / 07759 364461