Famous artist Francis Hamel is in his studio when I arrive for our interview, his stunning work lining the walls and floors of the Rousham workshop, paint strewn on palettes, squeezed out in tubes, his all consuming passion evident.
Fast forward a few months, and his current exhibition is in full flow, soon to hotfoot it off to London where his avid fans await.
But despite Francis’ ongoing fame and popularity, there is more hype than usual surrounding Rousham, Through The Gardens, because it depicts his Oxfordshire home for the first time.
Constantly in demand, Francis’ talents are procured far and wide, from China to London and beyond. So it was only lockdown that he was finally able to accomplish his long held wish to paint the gardens of Rousham in which he walks every morning.
Francis Hamel has lived in one of the estate cottages in the grounds of the Elizabethan manor for 25 years now, the gardens landscaped by William Kent in the 18th century and revered even today by the likes of Monty Don, thanks to their lack of formality and the harmony between the house, garden and surrounding countryside.
Francis was also at The Ruskin School of Art with current owner Angela Cottrell-Dormer (and her husband Charles) so knows the family well.
Coveting every nook and cranny, the gardens have always provided him with the breathing space and respite he needs. And yet when contained at Rousham for months on end during lockdown, his focus and renewed interest in the surrounding landscape and its nature found him reimagining the gardens on canvas.
“it really made me look at the gardens here in a different way. They really got under my skin”
The results are quite remarkable, Rousham encapsulated with great love and respect, both for its historic merit and its aesthetic poignance, his evident love of this terrain giving the work an enhanced quality, an unmistakable nostalgia for the Oxfordshire stately home’s back story, highlighted by his trademark ethereal colours and their distinctive hues – the purpley-blues invoking mist and dawn, the greys of dusk and shadows, the greens of dappled sunlight, the whiteness of the thick snow.
But it’s the peace of this famous garden that shines through, a far cry from the hubbub of London and the world’s airports, where Francis previously spent so much of his time. (He has a house and studio in Italy but obviously Covid put paid to that too.)
To give you an idea how prolific and busy Francis is let’s recap. In 2014 he was commissioned by Sir Cameron Mackintosh and St Catherine’s College to paint portraits of all their professors of Contemporary Theatre – 27 in all, from Stephen Fry to Sir Patrick Stewart – which were then exhibited at the V&A.
“the pandemic heightened everything. There was a real intensity to everything as if the atmosphere had changed “
In 2019 Francis painted in China for much of the year, to capture both the urban and rural landscapes at the request of the government. This was followed by work for Fortnum & Mason as well as The Victoria Palace Theatre, to name but a few.
He was supposed to be in Hong Kong last spring when the idea for the Rousham exhibition was formed, knowing that he would finally have the time to do the gardens justice. Joining up with Branch Arts in Charlbury, the exhibition will move on later this month for a longer run at the John Martin Gallery in Mayfair.
So what is it he loves so much about Rousham’s 50 acre gardens? “They are so mystical and unpretentious because you are not steered or tunnelled down certain paths but allowed to explore and experience them for yourself.
“But on a personal level, last spring everyone began really noticing their surrounding landscape during lockdown, and it really made me look at the gardens here in a different way. They really got under my skin and I began thinking about them in more painterly ways. There was such a wealth of subject matter here.”
“So the pandemic heightened everything. There was a real intensity to it all; the atmosphere had changed because of was going on around the world, whereas here it’s as if time stands still, so there was that real contrast to encapsulate as well.”
Starting with maps and drawings, once he got going Francis found it harder and harder to rest, as the seasons changed.
“I painted all year, trying to unlock Rousham’ secrets and pretty quickly I had a good collection of large and smaller paintings which are all pretty literal and almost painted themselves.
“Being creative is always its own private battle, but this has changed the way I look at painting and just as exciting,” he says, “so it will be interesting to see how people feel about the work.
Rousham, Through The Gardens by Francis Hamel in conjunction with Branch Arts is at Rousham House and Stables until October 6 from 12.00- 4.30pm. For more info go to https://rousham.org/exhibition/
It then moves to John Martin Gallery, 38 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JG from October 14 to November 5. https://www.jmlondon.com/exhibitions/rousham-through-the-gardens/