ARTS: Gloucester Rugby portrait exhibitions by Russell Haines

Artist Russell Haines with his portraits of Gloucester Rugby stars

Artist Russell Haines with his portraits of Gloucester Rugby stars - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Portrait artist Russell Haines is making it his mission to capture Gloucester’s rugby players, past and present, for an impressive series to mark World Cup 2015

Artist Russell Haines with James Simpson Daniel and Andy Hazel

Artist Russell Haines with James Simpson Daniel and Andy Hazel - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Fantastic, wonderful, surprising things are happening to Gloucester right now.

Artist Russell Haines with his portraits of Gloucester Rugby stars

Artist Russell Haines with his portraits of Gloucester Rugby stars - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

The excitement is palpable when you visit the city, as what has previously been considered Cheltenham’s ‘working-class’, less sophisticated neighbour emerges from its, some would say, self-imposed cocoon. The thing is, Gloucester has been biding its time; it’s always known that it has something special going for it, that it’s really not fair trying to compare it with its grand Regency cousin. Gloucester may not have Cheltenham’s polished mahogany veneer, but its aged oak exterior goes right through to the very core.

Andy Hazel, National Star College students Bradley Lovell and George Nicol and James Simpson Daniel,

Andy Hazel, National Star College students Bradley Lovell and George Nicol and James Simpson Daniel, with prints made by Star Print for the rugby stars - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

At the heart of this metamorphosis is an artist called Russell Haines, working in a gallery space he set up at the city’s old Moreland’s Match Factory on Bristol Road.

When I visit it’s a hive of activity, as students working at National Star’s print department are here to present two of Gloucester Rugby’s shining lights, James Simpson-Daniel and Andy Hazell, with giclée prints of Russell’s charcoal sketches of them. The students, Bradley Lovell and George Nicol, aren’t at all starry-eyed, but seem to take it all in their stride as they pose for photos with the local heroes.

Russell’s day starts very early; he’s in the studio at a time when most of us are horizontal, looking at the reverse side of our eyelids. He finds this a particularly productive time, cranking the radio up to listen to “everything from show tunes to Elbow” while he sweeps boldly across paper and canvas, creating his distinctive portraits. And when I say ‘boldly’, I mean boldly – these unflinching likenesses are two metres tall and created by a talent that’s only just shy of a thing possessed. Now, that could seem scary if Russell wasn’t such a lovely, warm-hearted man. I mean really warm-hearted.

Once the flurry of activity has died down – Bradley and George have headed back to Ullenwood with their inspirational enterprise manager, James Garrod, and the players have scooted off to the next media engagement – then I get to find out more about the real Russell Haines, and find his story a fascinating one.

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You see, Russell is completely self-taught. As a youngster being schooled at a Tuffley comprehensive and being from a building trade background, he was told that a practical trade was the way forward, and so he took up an apprenticeship as an electrician. It became a matter of drifting rather than choice, as is so often the case with many of us. In his wonderfully upbeat way, though, Russell makes a positive of this: “I was quite happy with my choices in the end, though, as I hated it so much I ended up travelling the world, constantly trying to get away.”

He proceeded to live his life to the full, fitting in travel, love, adventure… everything, it would seem, apart from art.

“I’ve only done this since I had a stroke,” he explains. “I went through some art therapy with Art-Lift at Stonehouse, and I began to draw the people there.”

Five years ago, aged 45, he suffered a stroke and consequently went through a bout of depression, sleeping 20 hours a day and believing he’d lost everything, being prescribed a cocktail of pills. “In the end my partner got fed up with it… and kicked me out,” he laughs. Even the lowest points of his life are said with an endearing guffaw, as he’s had time to reflect on life’s swerve-balls and learn to stick two fingers up, defiantly. I admire his spirit hugely.

“It was just two years ago that I was working from my father’s garage; I wasn’t allowed to see the kids, I had court cases coming up…” He pauses for a moment before laughing in his wonderfully uninhibited way, saying, “I am very proud of myself, but it’s very difficult when you put yourself up for things as people are very quick to knock you back.”

The style of Russell’s portraits most definitely reflects his love of German Expressionism – he also cites Freud, Klimt, Bacon and Van Gogh as influences – and the faces carry a weight of expression and depth of character that shows a truly deep understanding of his subjects’ psyche. This isn’t commissioned portrait-painting for the vain, these are studies of people the artist has spent time getting to know and then quickly, yet accurately, capturing the essence of them on a two-dimensional plane. It’s pure alchemy.

But why portraits of rugby players? There are a couple of very good reasons for this…

“I went to school with [ex-Gloucester rugby player] Andy Deacon,” explains Russell, “and after doing a portrait of him he suggested that, as it was Rugby World Cup year, it might be an idea to do a series of portraits.” Consequently, due to the artist’s talent, love of and fascination with people, support from the city’s movers-and-shakers, and the unpredictability of the force of nature that is serendipity, things have really taken off. Also, it’s with huge thanks to generous Arts Council funding that Russell’s series of portraits is growing into an impressive body of work – of around 120 large-scale pieces of players old and new – that will sit in exhibitions in Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery, Eastgate Shopping Centre, Gloucester Quays, and the Guildhall Arts Centre. Well, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And he really does understand his need to play a part in promoting his work and talking up the city he so obviously loves, but obviously has his reservations with self-marketing.

“I don’t know about social media,” he says, “but I do know about people, and you don’t say to them ‘ooh, look how wonderful I am; tell me how great I am’, and that’s why I don’t like social media. If you want to talk to me, the door’s open, come in and talk to me.” And I believe he means every word of it.

I’m mindful that I don’t want Russell to come across as either self-pitying or full of arrogant bravado, as he’s a rare spirit with wicked sense of humour and enviable lust for life.

“D’you know what?” he says, looking me directly in the eye, “After everything that’s happened to me, I just don’t give a f*ck anymore, and I’m going to do exactly what I want.” And I can’t tell you why exactly, but that one sentence fills me with unadulterated joy.

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‘Never Step Backwards’ – Exhibition of portraits of current and ex-Gloucester rugby players by Russell Haines to be shown across Gloucester from July to November 2015. The exhibition dates and venues are as follows:

• Gloucester Museum and Art Gallery: July 2-November 30

• Eastgate Shopping Centre: July 5-October 31

• Gloucester Quays: July 19-October 31

• Guildhall, exhibition of Southern Hemisphere portraits: September 2-30

Twitter: @glosrugbyexpo

www.russellhaines.co.uk