Jeremy Houghton

by Kerry Betsworth

Essay in the catalogue accompanying ‘Good Nature’, a group exhibition at Candida Stevens Gallery, Chicester, UK, 2017

We’ve had a day of trading phone calls, so when I finally manage to speak with Jeremy Houghton he is characteristically en route. Much like the themes that fascinate him in his work, movement is at the core and it appears that today he is its living embodiment.

Houghton is an artist with a roster of high profile commissioned work, which stretches from Olympic champions to royalty.  His work is distinctive and transporting, giving a viewer a feeling of being there. One can sense the elements, the glinting spray of sea under racing yachts or the close heat of sunlight afternoons at cricket greens. All have gained huge appeal as observations of the British at work and play in their natural environments.

For Houghton though, his more personal work and concerns are evoked in the plains of South Africa. It was here, when he was Head of Art at Cape Town School of Art, that he spent time in the unique, immense African landscapes watching the wildlife. Inspired by the country’s scale and skies, he tells me that he became fascinated with birds in flight.

He believes that they allow us to look out ‘further over the horizons’. It is a subject to which he regularly returns and through which he aims to capture the limitlessness of flight and its ‘pathways and passageways’. For him the natural world of birds has no borders or boundaries. It is movement and migration that occurs without edges. At this time in our own human history, when these issues are at the political fore, the metaphor is powerful for him.

Of particular poignancy to Houghton is the visually and most arresting of birds the flamingo. When he lived in South Africa and studied these birds he learnt that human interference in the landscape from industry caused the run-off of toxins and bacteria into the waters there. The impact of this has and continues to cause a huge amount of trouble for the beautiful pink bird. Many are dying at an alarming rate and they could soon be an endangered species.

It is no surprise that Houghton’s personal pre-occupancy with these birds means that the piece he is to create for GOOD NATURE is to be inspired by them.  There is still more to say and this time he wants to create the work on a circular canvas.  This is something he has experimented with in the past. It is a physical departure from the expected and perhaps too for an artist who has observed and visually commented on tradition for so long. We discuss how the circle represents a place that “ has no edges” and is an apt reflection of the migratory cycles and the freedom that birds in flight achieve. Perhaps, for Houghton, it also offers the birds a chance to escape from the threats to their very existence.

Houghton is happiest in the countryside where nature is a source of constant inspiration on his own doorstep. We discuss his Glasshouse project (see portrait). “It is something I wanted to do that would be big and different”. The glasshouse was disused and over an acre in size. For a long time he saw it as an ‘eyesore’ but he took time to look at it again and differently. Three years later, it has become a literal pool of inspiration that allows him to analyse and study, light, movement and water. He tells me that he flooded it and created a reservoir, which recycles the rainwater and he adds ‘by changing its identity from a redundant glasshouse I have found an incredible framework in which I can artistically research the perceptive experience within a multi dimensional space’. It is not only a space that helps him to evolve as an artist but also one he that he shares with other artists and who wish to explore the same natural qualities.

I ask him if he thinks artists have a role to draw attention to the issues that surround us in the natural world. He comments that during his residency at Highgrove and in conversations with HRH Prince Charles that he furthered his interest in the preservation of nature. He repeats a line that learnt from that experience –  “the protection of our mountains is as important as safe-guarding our cathedrals”. Artists, he believes, are able to bring ‘extra perspective’ on how we see our world and the everyday rhythms of living. It gives others the chance to appreciate, understand and look again at the world around them.

There is something more fundamental for Houghton in this too. He has just become a father and his awareness of the natural cycles and desire to pass on a world that has been protected for the next generation sits prominently in his thoughts. I ask him if he has anything else he would like to say. “No, that’s what matters”. This is well timed, he has arrived at his destination and for a brief moment he’s not on the move.