Jeremy Houghton exhibition: All the Queen’s Horses
- Credit: Rachel Jones Photography
Candia McKormack spends time with Jeremy Houghton, the Cotswold artist who knows all too well the Queen’s abiding love of horses and ponies
‘It’s quite good you coming, actually,’ says artist Jeremy Houghton, as he shows me to the first floor of his rural studio near Broadway, ‘as it’s forced me to get stuff out from over the years... and I actually find that it’s all very relevant.’
All the Queen’s Horses is the exhibition that Jeremy’s compiling when I visit – all laid out informally on the floor ahead of its rather more formal appointments – and it covers the Queen’s official ceremonial engagements as well as her more private moments.
The exhibition will be supporting three different charities – Retraining of Racehorses, World Horse Welfare, and the British Racing School – and, alongside the pomp and majesty of someone in the Queen’s position, Jeremy’s also keen to capture the personality of the woman and girl. He last worked with her when he was Artist in Residence at Windsor Castle back in 2014, again focusing on the equestrian angle. Prior to that he was artist in residence for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, alongside other royal appointments. ‘Prince Charles once said I am ‘the Queen’s favourite young artist’,’ he smiles. ‘The nice thing about that quote is the word ‘young’!’
‘When the Queen was younger,’ he continues, ‘she’d ride and take the salute – so the military aspect is important – but you also have the recreational aspect of her riding, too,’ he says, gesturing to an intimate sepia portrait of a very young princess with her first pony Peggy. ‘And then, of course, you’ve got the racing...’
And so Jeremy’s vibrant new exhibition brings together the military, recreational and racing aspects of Elizabeth II’s incredibly full life.
‘My themes seem to be military, royalty and sport... with a few flamingos chucked in,’ he laughs, ‘and those seem to keep regenerating the next job, leading to other residencies.’
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Jeremy’s commissions certainly do come into being as organically as Prince Charles’ brassicas and, as his various residencies have taught him, the challenge is always very much in capturing an extensive career, building or occasion in a handful of paintings.
‘A lot of these weren’t intended for exhibition,’ he continues, looking critically at the pieces arranged on the floor in front of him, ‘I just pulled them out of my sketch book... but I think if you include sketches in an exhibition, it’s an important part of the story.’
To really bring home the scale of working on a representational exhibition of the Queen’s life, he states that in the Getty Museum there are around 250 million photos of her. ‘And so, for me, as an artist in this situation,’ he says, ‘I’m trying to refine all those images and find just a few that tell the wider story.’
Jeremy says he doesn’t really see himself as a portrait artist, but is increasingly asked to capture people in sketches and oils. He’s recently completed 100 portraits of The Scouts’ most famous alumni, including ‘everyone from David Attenborough to Bear Grylls and Warwick Davies.’ And now, he finds himself working with the Queen in Windsor this month, on a separate project celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Lancers. ‘It’s not only their centenary,’ he says, ‘but it’s also 75 years since the Queen was made Colonel in Chief of the regiment, so she has a real soft spot for them. It’s weird that, in this Platinum Jubilee year, I have two jobs with the lady of the moment!’
The Queen’s 96th Birthday portrait – showing her standing between two of her favourite Fell ponies – links beautifully to Jeremy’s June exhibition, and his experience in general of working with Her Majesty.
‘Her ponies, her horses are her everything,’ he says. ‘Ever since she was little, she’s had a pony... and here we are, 90 years on, and that’s still what makes her get up in the morning.
‘It’s always been a big part of both her public and private life. When I was artist in residence at Windsor, that aspect was what I thought most told her story; life with both her public and private hat on.
On the Saturday of the Platinum Jubilee weekend, the Queen is going to Epsom Derby where she will be presented with one of Jeremy’s paintings. ‘A sort of present from the nation,’ he says, ‘which I’m still trying to get my head around!’
The painting is of ‘her best horse ever’ Dunfermline, who won at Epsom Derby – ‘and just about everything’ – in the 70s, and so Jeremy has been commissioned to create a painting of the horse, which he’s working on as we speak. ‘She doesn’t know it yet,’ he says, ‘but she’s going to be presented with it in June, which is quite an honour... she’s very proud of him, knows everything about him and will notice every detail, so that’s quite bit of pressure.’
And Jeremy is also keen to acknowledge the roles that other royals play – and have played – in Elizabeth’s life, with Prince Philip having shared her equestrian passion with his polo and carriage-driving. ‘Although he’s no longer here,’ he says, ‘he’s still a huge part of the story.’
He also acknowledges that changes are afoot, and that it is an opportunity for the monarchy to reassess its position.
‘You do get the feeling that the Commonwealth is holding on for Her Majesty to live out her days as Queen,’ he says, ‘and that it might have to make a massive shift. Charles as King may have to drastically reduce the size of the monarchy or make it more reflective of society; he’s got to answer these quite challenging questions.
‘He’s not afraid of making the unpopular calls and speaking his mind,’ he continues. ‘From my experience of him, he’s very intelligent and gets good advice. He does tend to be right quite a lot, is very forward-looking and does see the bigger picture. I think he’s totally aware of public perception and opinion, and is making the right moves to make the monarchy a modern, acceptable institution which is important and relevant today.
‘The Queen and Prince Charles – whilst they are who they are – still very much like to mix with everyday people like you and I. They don’t need the pomp and ceremony, though that goes with the job, but I think deep down – and this plays in with what I’m trying to say in this exhibition – that the Queen is allowed a bit of time off. When she’s able to take the crown off, she likes being in the countryside, and being with her horses and ponies. When I was with her at Windsor, and Charles at Highgrove – which are both places of escape for them – you really do get that feeling of... and breathe... you know, they’re not under constant scrutiny.
‘I think the Queen is the most iconic woman of our century,’ he concludes, ‘and, whether you’re a royalist or not, everyone has a certain amount of admiration and appreciation for what she’s done.’
Jeremy Houghton’s All the Queen’s Horses exhibition is showing at the Osborne Studio Gallery for a week, from June 6-11 – the week leading up to Royal Ascot – and then it’s coming back to the Cotswolds, at Art Cotswold in Chipping Campden, from June 13 until the end of the month. jeremyhoughton.co.uk