Jeremy Houghton: Artist in Residence for the British America’s Cup Team

Jeremy with four time Olympic Gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslee

Jeremy with four time Olympic Gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslee - Credit: Archant

Artist in Residence for Team BAR, Jeremy Houghton discusses the alliance of art and sport with Sandra Smith

The modern building I’m standing inside dwarfs the old pubs and newly renovated housing around the Camber in Old Portsmouth. From an elevated viewing platform, I’ve discovered the perfect spot to observe a team of engineering experts working on a sailing vessel. I should, like everyone else here, refer to the sleek, aerodynamic construction as a boat but somehow that monosyllable undermines the design, never mind potential, of a costly piece of equipment which has the capability of travelling three times faster than the wind by which it is propelled.

“Boats are the fighter jets of the sailing world. Foiling is like flying.” My companion’s sporting knowledge matches his enthusiasm and before long I’ve learned about chase boats, wetsuits and rewriting competition rules. But then I am talking to Jeremy Houghton, Artist in Residence for the British America’s Cup Team here in Union Jack clad Land Rover BAR headquarters where everyone’s focus is to #BringTheCupHome.

“There are six boats in the World Series Events competing against each. Whoever wins this series can then go on to challenge the Americans. So we have to win and come out on top. That is the story I’m trying to paint.”

To fulfil his remit, Jeremy invests hours on the water enjoying the thrill of speed whilst taking photographs of the team in training. Seeing the boat working is he shares, the pinnacle of his time in Portsmouth though his approach is discreet.

“I don’t want to be an artist with everyone watching. I stay on the edge. I have access to everywhere but I slip in and out unnoticed.”

As we walk through the building the 42 year old insists sport can unite people and strengthen our national identity, whilst the BAR 1851 Trust, the organisation’s charitable arm, is encouraging the younger generation into all aspects of sailing.

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“You don’t just have to sail, you could design sails and it’s the same with art. When I was at school the art room was at one end of school and design at the other. Now there’s a recognition that they should be together. An overlap of artistic people is where a lot of magic happens.”

When we reach a public display area of Jeremy’s paintings I’m tempted to shield my eyes, such is the intensity with which he has captured sunlight glinting on the water. Climatic conditions are similarly highlighted by the artist’s fondness for negatives. Inheriting family photographs plus an interest in history have inspired Jeremy’s monochrome leaning which accentuate a sense of movement - so crucial in his work.

“To paint movement you have to eliminate detail and focus on the essential form. On a flat, static painting that means working out what to leave out. Minimalising the pallet helps emphasise movement. Also, to paint sport well you have to have been there and done that in order to capture motion, timing and light. All my paintings are, to a certain extent, biographical because sailing was part of our summer holidays when I was growing up. Now when I paint boats the sights, sounds and smells are familiar.”

Sailing isn’t the only sport Jeremy has portrayed on canvas. As Official Artist at the London Olympics witnessing the athletes’ determination and sacrifices involved in training influenced his work. Goodwood has also attracted his attention and working with the Army left him with an admiration of the troops’ sense of commitment and personal goals, emotions he portrays through his paintings.

Over coffee we talk about Jeremy’s impressive CV. He has been the Official Artist for London Fashion Week and undertaken a number of Royal commissions as Artist in Residence at Highgrove and Windsor.

“I did some teaching in Oxford and South Africa then took the decision to go into the art world. But at the age of 30 I decided I couldn’t just paint things for myself, I needed a game plan. At a small exhibition, an amalgamation of pictures of mounted cavalry regiments, there were two guys who were part of The Queen’s Gentlemen at Arms. They asked me to shadow them during their quincentenary the following year. I observed and shadowed the Queen, too, and painted her at St James’ Palace. When I sent a portfolio of my work to Clarence House - Prince Charles liked it and doors were opened.”

I can’t imagine Jeremy doing anything other than take these career enhancing opportunities in his stride. He is calm and engaging with an attractive aura of self assurance. His current success, however, is at odds with his background.

“I hated academic subjects and boarding school so I sought refuge in art, which gave me a sense of satisfaction. I had good A Level Art but my father thought it wasn’t a sensible career choice. He was a lawyer and said a law degree would stand me in good stead whatever my profession. So I worked hard and got it. My saving grace was an old VW Campervan which doubled as my studio. Throughout my student days I used holidays to travel and paint.”

Brief work experience at London law firms confirmed what Jeremy instinctively knew – that his career lay in the art world. These days his father is proud of his son’s achievements. Indeed, Jeremy’s studio is a barn on his parents’ land a couple of miles away from his own home.

Jeremy shows me one of his sketchbooks showcasing pencil drawings of Highgrove and the Goodwood Dog Show alongside watercolours of the Queen and her residences. Watercolour is, he recognises, unforgiving and fluent, and is a medium he has favoured since childhood which prompts me to ask whether either of his daughters share their father’s artistic skills.

“Well, my six year old once photocopied her pictures to sell as prints. And she made her own business cards,” he proudly smiles.

This far reaching alliance of art and sport has resulted in a series of memorable paintings which, at one level, elegantly capture one of our island’s favourite pastimes. But, more than that, they also chronicle what will hopefully be a successful encounter. To ignite public support for the America’s Cup, a number of exhibitions featuring Jeremy’s work will be held next year. Meanwhile his reputation as a contemporary sporting artist is being propelled by four times Olympic Gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie’s team and their ambitions.

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