Untold Stories

by Ally Ireson

Published in Cloud magazine, February 2017

Painter Jeremy Houghton has been appointed ‘Championship Artist’ for this summer’s Wimbledon. The powers that be have told him that this year they don’t want any ‘behind the scenes’ coverage (it’s an angle that’s obviously clocked up a lot of mileage recently) – so no stringing of rackets, washing of strawberries or portraits of Djokovic’s poodle. Houghton has instead been asked to focus on match play. For an artist who says he likes to “tell the untold story” this directive could be a frustration but Houghton sounds enthusiastically undeterred, and talks about an approach in which “the crowd plays as important a part as the players”. It looks likely, then, that his paintings of Wimbledon’s six different finals matches (he’s been asked to produce one for each) will do more than straightforwardly enhance SW19’s conventional sporting iconography.

This nuanced attitude is one you might not expect from someone with a reputation as one of the UK’s leading proponents of ‘sports art’ – a genre not traditionally associated with subtlety. The Wimbledon residency is the latest in a sequence of big sports-related commissions for Houghton, including being designated to help document the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Artist in Residence at Goodwood (2015), and Tour Artist for the Aston Martin Centenary (2013). As a result of these and many other projects, he has become known for striking distillations of dramatic individual and team pursuits: a racing dinghy cutting through explosive waves, horses thundering down the final furlong, a team of track cyclists battling the air in sinister, helmet-faced formation. With an almost monochromatic blue palette and with bright white space (actually unmarked paper) seemingly having bleached all extraneous detail, Houghton’s paintings are reminiscent of old photographic negatives. This and a lack of contemporary references mean his images often look disarmingly historicised: it can be hard to tell which century we’re looking at. It’s not difficult, then, to see why people want Houghton to paint their events – his ‘already timeless’ works seem to turn the traditionally gentle medium of watercolour into jet fuel for the iconic.

Like everyone who relies on selling something (and he is unafraid to say that he does in part have to treat his work as a business), Houghton could easily concentrate on turning out more of the same – ‘epic sports scenes’ will generally be a relatively easy sell. But that democratic interest in the spectators as well as the players at Wimbledon suggests that Houghton wouldn’t be satisfied with such a purely commercial and narrow practice. And there is plenty of evidence online and in his exhibition list that his work has an enduring focus other than sport. It may seem discordant given the human drama of his sports paintings, but Houghton also has a real passion for birds – specifically, for depicting them in flight.

This interest was ignited when he began watching the local flamingo population in Cape Town, where he spent a number of years running an art school after finishing his degree in law (something he says he hated and did because art wasn’t seen to offer “proper” prospects). Houghton’s images of migrating flocks (a prominent feature of a 2014 retrospective at the Worcestershire offshoot of the Ashmolean Museum) are unexpectedly quiet pieces, with an even more marked deployment of empty space than the sports paintings. Houghton says that in essence all his paintings are an attempt to depict movement, and that blank space is crucial to this, given that by nature movement sits right at the edge of what it is possible to represent.
It’s his track record of producing striking representations of movement that helped Houghton secure one of his latest commissions: Artist in Residence for the British team currently aiming to secure Britain’s first-ever win of The America’s Cup (famous for its head-to-head races of the world’s fastest boats). Houghton has documented the work of Land Rover BAR, led by Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie, for the last year, and will soon travel to see the team in Bermuda, where it has decamped to ready itself for the knockout stage of the Cup contest later this year. Despite having been christened with the auntie-like name ‘Rita’, Ainslie’s boat seems to have been born for visual capture, a state-of-the-art poster girl for the exuberant potential of computer-aided engineering. The description ‘fighter jet on water’ doesn’t feel so much like hyperbole when you watch this 45-foot catamaran in action: with its twin hulls connected to the water by only four spike-like ‘daggerboards’, the boat seems to fly as much as it sails.

A subject with this much natural dynamism, as well as the expectations that attach to a high-profile commission, mean it would have been easy for Houghton to produce painting after painting that shouted ‘incredible’, ‘speed’ and ‘daring’. But from the outset, he was also interested in exploring the idea that “There are five guys on the boat and 150 people off the boat… and it’s the 150 who actually make the boat sail.” As a result, Houghton went “behind closed doors” to create many emphatically everyday views of the BAR project – for example, a pared-back watercolour of Rita’s double hull suspended in the maintenance shed like a giant unfinished window frame.

This interest in “balancing the story” was also engaged during two other of Houghton’s stand-out projects, during which he was probably doubly aware of the privilege of an ‘access all areas’ status: at Highgrove House in 2013 (home to Prince Charles) and Windsor Palace (reportedly the Queen’s favourite royal residence) in 2014. These two residencies came out of relationships developed in 2009 during a commission to shadow the Queen’s ceremonial guard corps, the Gentlemen at Arms, to mark their 500th anniversary. Houghton says that residencies weren’t originally “on the game plan” but was conscious when he returned to the UK from South Africa that to make a go of painting full time he had to “find an angle” and develop work he knew people would buy. As a result, he used family connections with the military to gain access to document the life of some of London’s cavalry regiments – projects that became the first links in the chain of immersive projects that have formed the backbone to his career ever since.

Given that Houghton is a pragmatist as well as an artist, it’s not surprising that the images he made of Highgrove and Windsor include the highly marketable likes of gilded carriages, famous royal buildings, bucolic landscapes and men in uniform. But these collections also feature the kind of unglamorous sights you could see just wandering around: a family of pigs, a woman tending a sunny vegetable garden, horses being washed down in their stables – so alongside the readily iconic there is plenty of evidence of a life Houghton describes as “the one people don’t see”. The fact that he gives breathing space to the slippage between the popular perception of a celebrated place or event and its everyday reality is what ensures that his work remains more layered and more interesting than the label ‘sports artist’ might suggest. Although he is at the peace with the fact he produces work that “doesn’t ruffle feathers”, talking to him makes it clear that Houghton is not an artist content to roost complacently in any form of pigeonhole.