Royalty, Flamingos and the Road Home

Written by Greg Fountain for ICONIC magazine.

Renowned artist Jeremy Houghton has painted for The Queen and Prince Charles, but his latest residency brings him back home to the Cotswolds, at The Lygon Arms.

Broadway is synonymous with art. Along the wide high street that gave this peaceful Worcestershire village its name have walked so many great artists, writers, composers and designers, many of whom gathered and lingered to create a ‘colony’ of creativity in the Victorian era and beyond. Names such as William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement with which he was associated, American artists John Singer Sargent, Francis Millet and Edwin Abbey, and British legends such as Alfred Parsons, Edward Elgar and Vaughan Williams, all stayed or lived in Broadway.

Born into this epicentre of creative heritage in 1974, Jeremy Houghton was perhaps destined to fall under its influence. Recently appointed artist in residence at The Lygon Arms, the 600-year-old hotel he used to walk past on his way to school, Jeremy’s life and artistic journey could seem somehow predetermined. But his route has been anything but predictable, taking in everything from the horses of Cheltenham to the flamingos of the Kalahari.

“I was born and bred in Broadway. As a little boy, every day I’d walk up past the Lygon Arms and head off to primary school,” he says. “It was lovely to be asked back to be artist in residence there. It was a bit like my residency at Windsor Castle for The Queen, because I was at school nearby and often saw the castle but was never allowed in. To be allowed into these places as an adult is a real treat!”

There is an extraordinary list of ‘these places’ in Houghton’s story. He has become known as a consummate artist in residence, having undertaken residential commissions not only for the royals but for Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the RAF centenary, the Falklands 40th anniversary, the America’s Cup, London Fashion Week, Goodwood and the James Hunt estate, among others. His very first residency was in South Africa, where he started out teaching art.

“The turning point in my career was when I ran the art school in Cape Town for five years, and I was asked to be artist in residence for the Oppenheimer family, who are De Beers,” says Houghton. “They asked me to paint their estates in Africa. I also did a residency for David Rattray, who brought the Anglo-Zulu wars to light. When I returned to the UK in 2005, the residency angle continued. There seemed to be three strands – military, sporting or royalty – and one led to another.

“A residency allows me unfettered access to an interesting place, or occasion or event, with licence to roam. I try to look at the interesting relationship between perception and reality. At Windsor Castle, there’s this iconic building that we all know, and the perception is it’s the home of the royals, but behind the walls, there’s a community of about a thousand people – it’s a hardworking, busy, active, diverse, dynamic community. You can’t tell a thousand years of history in a handful of paintings, so you’ve got to find one angle. And having wandered around for a week or so, I did feel that the heartbeat of the place was the mews. I felt that through the life of the horse and the eyes of the horse you saw a very interesting perspective on both the private and public life of the royal family. If you can find that angle, you can tell a wider story in a concise way.”

Working at Windsor, Houghton frequently encountered The Queen herself, who took a great interest. “I’d be painting away, and all of a sudden, there’d be a Corgi sniffing around my feet, and I knew The Queen was pottering around in her scarf and would come to look at what I was doing. We’d have a chat. It was that perception and reality thing again – she was the head of state but also just a lovely lady. To be able to get to know the lovely lady was such a privilege. We won’t see her like again. She asked me what else I painted – I told her I painted flamingos. She said, ‘I haven’t got any of those, but I can invite you to come and paint my pigeons at Sandringham!’ So I had a day at Sandringham with her racing pigeons!”

For some artists, a residency might seem to curtail creative freedom, but Houghton is empowered by the scope. “A residency is not restrictive. These events and places are massive and there’s actually too much information. You have to filter it. As with my painting style, it’s a process of distillation – you’re taking away detail, you’re refining, refining, refining, eliminating things until you’re left with the one nugget from which you can tell the whole story. That’s the challenge.”

Houghton’s painting style is fascinating and unusual and derives in part from a familial connection to Broadway’s past. His grandfather was the doctor in Broadway from the 1930s, and on his death, bequeathed 12 volumes of cuttings and photographs to his grandson.

“I love history and I recognise that we live in a place where history is important. I have a lot of old photographs from my grandfather’s collection of old negatives, and that was the starting point for a lot of my work. I think there’s a certain power to those old negatives, and I used it as inspiration. If you’re trying to paint movement, you’ve got to eliminate detail, and to take that concept further, I thought if I reduce the palette, maybe that enhances the idea of movement. I’ve done a lot of work with the same sort of sepia and blue tones. It gives my pictures a timeless, historical feel. With a lot of my work, it could be yesterday, it could be 100 years ago. I like that play on time.”

This technique is emboldened by Houghton’s use of negative space – he never paints the positive form, only the space around it. “It allows me to keep eliminating,” he says. “You can eliminate too much, but if you’re OK with your timing, you can create a composition where one or two brushstrokes give so much information. It’s a challenge, and it involves a lot of squinting and sometimes dark glasses!”

Although this technique and his exceptional catalogue of residencies may define Houghton’s body of work, he has also amassed an altogether different signature collection which began back in South Africa: flamingos. These eye-catching, endangered birds first attracted his eye in the Kalahari Desert 20 years ago, and painting them remains at the heart of his inspiration today, frequently luring him back to South Africa. “With the flamingos, I’m being much more playful on the canvas, much more happy-go-lucky with my choice of colours. Painting them is more of a dance, whereas the monochromatic paintings are more of a study. The monochromatics are more of an essay, the flamingos a poem. I would say to any young artist starting out, it’s good having two different styles to work off each other. It keeps you invigorated.”

The next big commission on Houghton’s list is in celebration of the centenary of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, for which he is producing a painting of every winning horse. “There are less than 100 winners!” he points out. “And they’re not massive paintings. The idea is to have a big display at the racecourse and then to sell them for Cheltenham’s charities. It’s been fascinating delving into the archives.”

So, is The Lygon Arms residency a bit like closing a circle? “Deep down, home is in Broadway – the jewel of the Cotswolds. So you could say I’ve come full circle,” Houghton says. “I’ll be in the Lygon Arms and my studio, just allowing guests to chat, see me work, come to the studio or the gallery, meet local artists and for me to tell them a bit about Broadway history. There are various paintings hanging in the hotel – in the foyer, there’s that cool one of The Queen with James Bond at the Olympics, and I’ve matched it with The Queen and Paddington Bear at the Platinum Jubilee. People come to The Lygon Arms from around the world, and they come for a bit of Britishness. If I can produce paintings that reflect those stories, it will be great.

“Broadway is massively inspiring in my day-to-day work. The view out of my window is the Broadway Tower. It’s like this beacon of artistic heritage.”

Pick up a copy of ICONIC magazine in The Lygon Arms, Clivedon House, Chewton Glen, 11 Cadogan Gardens or The Mayfair Townhouse – the Iconic Luxury Hotels Collection.