Award-winning Sussex architect and prolific artist Neil Holland, who has painted for the Duke of Norfolk, has his sights set on a one man exhibition

‘A man walks into a bar…’ is the opening gambit to many a joke. Neil Holland has a couple of personal anecdotes that started exactly the same way his case the punchlines had a formative effect on a long-standing dual career that has dovetailed his passions for art and architecture.

The first was 60 years ago when the teenage Neil sold one of his paintings for the first time - emboldened by friends to ask for the princely sum of nine guineas - the equivalent of £13.50 today. The second was more recently when he went for a drink in his local, the Crate & Apple, in Chichester. A chance conversation led to a new friendship and now Neil, whose work has been exhibited at London’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition,is preparing for his first exhibition in five years.

‘I was just having a glass of wine and a man, Michael Dawes, was in there talking to one or two people by the bar,’ recalls Neil. ‘I’d leant one or two landscapes to the pub and Michael told the men he knew my style of paintings from seeing an exhibition in Brighton. Then they started talking about my landscapes in a very nice manner so I turned round and told them they were mine and Michael couldn’t believe it.’

Great British Life: Neil has combined his love of art with architectureNeil has combined his love of art with architecture

The pair struck up an immediate rapport and Michael, who used to live in Chichester before moving to Plymouth, is now curating and helping Neil organise the exhibition Spirit of Sussex: The Art and Architecture of Neil Holland. Running at Chichester’s Oxmarket Contemporary this month (subs note: October) , it has been more than three years in the planning. For the past 18 months Neil has been completing new works which will be on show alongside some of his existing paintings in the former St Andrew’s Church which has been used for art since the 1970s. The beautiful watercolours capture sweeping scenes of the county where he was born and bred. The exhibition also includes some of his architectural drawings.

‘It was Michael who persuaded me to do it,’ laughs Neil, 78. ‘I already knew the gallery from living in Chichester and so I decided to bite the bullet and hold it there. It was delayed due to the pandemic and I’ve been working hard to get as much new work into the exhibition as I can. There will be around 30 or so paintings in the exhibition and all of the new ones, which make up the majority, will be in the old church which is now the main gallery. There’s also a slightly retrospective side to it as there will be works dating back six years and more. Although they’re a bit older they have only ever been in my house so they’ve never really been exhibited.

‘The last time I exhibited was in Arundel which is where I lived before moving to Chichester around 10 years ago. I used to take part in the Arundel Gallery Trail and open houses. This is going to be in a commercial gallery and I don’t know whether people know me or my work in this area so much, so I am a little nervous. I am also a perfectionist by nature, in both my architecture and painting, and I never think anything is good enough.’

Great British Life: The artist has exhibited in Arundel, shown here, before. Copyright Duncan Woolgartel The artist has exhibited in Arundel, shown here, before. Copyright Duncan Woolgartel

A glance at Neil’s portfolio, and his name alone, should be enough to allay any fears. In 1970 another chance meeting, this time with the late naturalist and wildlife artist Sir Peter Scott, led to Neil being commissioned to design the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust visitor centre in Arundel which earned a Civic Trust Award in recognition of its outstanding architecture.

In 1973 he founded Neil Holland Architects in Arundel and was a senior lecturer at Brighton School of Architecture from 1979 to 1986. His company specialised in contextual architecture, both commercial and residential, where new buildings merge with their historic and natural surroundings. His personal connection to the landscapes is also embodied in his watercolours.

Neil was selected to exhibit at the Summer Exhibition three years in a row in the early 1980s, displaying works in the designated architecture room. Around the same time his landscape paintings were on show at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours’ exhibition in London’s Mall Galleries.

By the time he retired from the practice in 2016 it had won more than 60 awards. Accolades include the design for Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospice in Angmering and the Rubbing House - a classically designed private house near Goodwood -winning Sussex Heritage Trust awards. In 2018 Neil was named Person of the Year by the trust for a lifetime contribution to architecture and heritage in East and West Sussex.

Great British Life: Neil's watercolours capture where he grew up in SussexNeil's watercolours capture where he grew up in Sussex

Neil’s love of drawing and painting goes back to his childhood and schooldays as a pupil at Worthing’s former High School for Boys.

‘I was always asking my father if we could draw on drizzly Sunday afternoons and think I used to drive him mad,’ recalls Neil. ‘He was always very patient with me as I always wanted to draw. I drifted towards arts and languages at school and was the only one in my school who was doing A Level art. I had a great art master and if I had a double period of art he’d say, “I don’t need to train you”. He would give me a subject to do and say, “I’m going off to the golf club now”.’

When he told the school’s careers master he wanted to become a professional actor or artist he was advised to become an architect instead, as architects draw.

‘He dismissed my first two preferences as, in his words, they were rather silly, and pointed me in the direction of architecture.’

‘I’m really a painter who became an architect,’ muses Neil who left school and was one of two out of 52 applicants to secure a position as a trainee architect with West Sussex County Council. Stark Brutalism architecture was fashionable at the time but it did not sit comfortably with Neil. So much so, he was on the verge of giving up.

Great British Life: His love of painting goes back to childhoodHis love of painting goes back to childhood

‘I kept having discussions with my tutors that I felt buildings should belong where they’re built and not just be an industrialised glass or concrete box, but they wouldn’t have any of it,’ he says. ‘Then I went on trip to Glasgow and saw Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art school and had a Damascus Road experience. It was very different and very original but also very Scottish and it blew me away. So I decided to just toe the line with my tutors and then go out to do what my heart was telling me.’

Neil carried on painting throughout this time and has a clear recollection of selling a painting for the first time at the age of 19.

‘I was at the Lamb pub in Angmering, where my parents lived, with a couple of old school friends,’ says Neil. ‘I told them I’d done a painting of the pub from the outside and they told me to show it to the landlord as he might buy it. He took it upstairs to show it to his wife and I wondered how much I was going to ask for it if he wanted it. I thought maybe a fiver and I could buy a round of drinks but my friends said no, I had to sell it for nine guineas. When the landlord came back I girded my loins and said the price and he just went to the till and got the money out.’

Today his limited edition prints are available through his website from £275, and he also sells originals and undertakes commissions. His work has been sold throughout the world, including America, Canada and Australia.

Great British Life: Worthing Bandstand Worthing Bandstand

When he is not working from his studio at home Neil has always enjoyed painting outdoors, en plein air, and has spent many hours in and around Arundel Castle including undertaking paintings for the Duke of Norfolk which have been presented as gifts to retiring trustees.

‘He has always been very generous as you are not supposed to drive around the park but he has always told me that I can go anywhere with all my paints so I’ve done a lot of paintings there. I’m a great believer that there’s beauty everywhere, so you don’t necessarily have to choose a classic view.’

Neil says art enables painters to edit out anything they might not like and focus on the best parts. Indeed, he discovered JMW Turner exercised the same artistic licence during the time he spent in Sussex.

‘I have painted the landscape of Arundel Park from the exact spot where Turner painted it and I noticed he had cheated quite a bit as it doesn’t look at all like his painting,’ he jokes.

Great British Life: Neil has won numerous awards for his architectureNeil has won numerous awards for his architecture

Capturing the spirit of any given place is the ethos behind his Sussex watercolours and, on reflection, Neil concedes that his career master’s advice was right.

‘It all worked out well in the end and I’ve managed to be a painter as well,’ concludes Neil who continues to undertake architectural consultancy work.

Indeed, thanks to that guidance he can look back – as well as forward – on a lifetime of art and architecture in his home county where his talents are reflected in both his paintings and buildings.

Spirit of Sussex: The Art and Architecture of Neil Holland at the Oxmarket Contemporary, St Andrew’s Court, off East Street, Chichester, October 10-29.