‘I don’t feel 80, I must say’
I HADN’T expected Harry Holland to be so frank and funny. There’s a polished refinement to his work that I expected to find in person, but instead he’s charmingly wry, his accent betrays no particular social or geographical background and he’s not at all precious about his work.
Looking at an array of large portraits of people in their work clothes, all lined up ready to go to Martin Tinney Gallery for his 80th birthday exhibition, he says: “I’ve never regarded this as labour. But it can get tough sometimes. For example, see the bloody chef? He would have to wear a checked apron, wouldn’t he? Can you imagine?” He smiles. “It p*ssed me off.”
The complex checks and folds of the apron are perfectly rendered, however tricky they were to capture. Holland is one of the country’s finest and most respected realist figurative painters and his skills with flesh and fabric are phenomenal.
Looking around his studio, it’s clear there’s going to be plenty to see in this new show – at 80, he’s still prolific, working 9am until 6pm most days, but allowing himself to finish at one on a Sunday.
The studio itself is impressive. He works from a large two-story former warehouse in the back garden of his daughter’s house in Cardiff. The top floor is vast, light and airy. Paintings line the walls and are propped against the walls – there’s an eclectic selection of CDs on the table and a few props scattered about, a writhing Medusa headpiece made from hessian and a pair of angel wings reflect the mythologically-inspired ‘caprices’ that form part of his regular output.
Born in Glasgow during World War II, Holland took a long path to get here. He lost his dad when he was just 18 months old – he died in a fall while mending aircraft hangars. His mother went on to marry a chef, whose job took the family to live in various seaside towns. Eventually, Holland went to grammar school and, when he finished there, he took a job as a clerk in an insurance office.
“After a couple of years of that I jacked it in,” he says. “Then, after a couple of years of faffing around, I met my wife, who took me in hand. I was so lucky really, she sent me to art school, because she realised that I wasn’t actually interested in anything else.”
His love of painting had started early, inspired by his mother who was an amateur painter. Now, as a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London, he was able to hone his talents. He was strongly influenced by the European figurative tradition – a tradition he describes as the richest in the world.
“It’s capable of carrying so much in terms of narrative and atmosphere and there’s a whole mathematical aspect to it,” he says.
In particular he’s been inspired by 19th century salon painting, especially the work of William- Adolphe Bouguereau. Other influences include early Italian painters such as Titian, plus the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and Baroque painters Van Dyck and Rembrandt. He didn’t go straight into fine art, however. His first post graduate work was illustration.
“It was mostly illustration for books – for example Collins New World of Knowledge. I did some book covers. Anything really,” he says.
During those early years, he adds that his wife Mo was “a marvel. There was always grub on the table. I didn’t how she did it, actually. Money was difficult”.
He went on to get a job as a teacher, which took them to Leamington Spa, but after four years his work as a fine artist and illustrator had built up so well that he gave up teaching.
He’s enjoyed a successful career as a painter since and his work is collected by people all over the world, particularly since the advent of internet art sales. Along the way he and Mo raised their two daughters, moving to Cardiff in 1973, where they have remained ever since.
His work, however, is not rooted in Wales, or any place for that matter. His focus is on people in imagined settings, or very simply staged, and on still life.
“What gets me up in the morning is the technical challenges,” he says. “Quite often, I changed direction because of a technical thing – so I might work for two years on a particular set of things and then all of a sudden I get fed up. I spent four or five years doing nothing but still life because of the richness of the technical demands.”
While his own art feels fresh and contemporary, the influence of his early education and influences is clear. His paintings are often dramatically lit and it’s surprising to learn that he creates these effects with his imagination, not by lighting the subject in real life.
“I learned to draw in a very traditional way – it was mostly about form and how light reveals form,” he says. “If you know what the rules are, you know what something should look like, you can often adjust what you actually see.”
A perennial theme is the human body – in particular the female form. What attracts him to this? He smiles.
“It’s beautiful. I mean, my missus asks me this question all the time. She’s never been keen. But they are so bloody beautiful. Human beings are beautiful, generally speaking, and you can do things with the human form – for example, the idea of something as heavy, as corporeal, as a human body, just floating. It becomes almost a kind of metaphor for all sorts of aspects of human nature.”
The paintings he’s referring to are his depictions of women floating in the air – often against a sky reminiscent of a Renaissance fresco. Enigmatic and ethereal, these are some of my favourite examples of his work. Another common thread – and one that should have prepared me for Holland’s sense of humour – is a playful element: “People have forgotten that paintings can actually be funny. They can be ironical or sarcastic even – and, yes, you are allowed to laugh.”
To some extent, he sees painting as at odds with the broader contemporary art world.
“What’s happened in the art world, I think, is that people have monetised revolution. And I think it’s tired and rather nasty,” he says. “The big arts organisations right across the world seem to have taken art over and approach it as though it’s got to be revolutionary.
“People like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, they’re supposed to be revolutionary, but it’s actually rather tired old stuff. But there is now more of an emphasis on painting not to make big statements, but to make small ones – to look at the world and just make it beautiful.”
His work is perceptive as well as beautiful. The personality of his subjects often shines through – sometimes revealing things to him that he hadn’t noticed before.
“That guitar maker there,” he says, pointing to one of the series of people in their work clothes. “He’s my friend. I’ve known this guy for 15 years. I looked at the painting and thought, ‘He doesn’t look like that does he?’ – but yes, he does. And he actually looks really kind. And old,” he smiles.
“These paintings were all about the gear – the clothes. But they’ve actually become much more characterful – the characters have emerged through them. And that’s one of the things that I found interesting, because you can’t have people in your paintings without wondering about them. Any life drawing session is about the character of the model and the character of the guy who’s running it.”
While he makes drawings from life, his paintings are not made with the model in front of him. Instead, he uses his drawings, photographs and more modern means. For his portrait of a cowboy, a brother of one of his models, the internet enabled him to depict a subject who lives in the US.
“I met this chap on FaceTime,” he says. “I saw him getting organised, moving around and getting his gear together. One of the great things about FaceTime and all that is that you can actually record what’s going on – so I can work from video.”
The paintings take anything between two months and five years to complete. He works on several at a time, building them up in layers of oil paint. It’s clear that he is constantly striving to make each painting better than the last.
Asked for the most important lesson he’s learnt as an artist, he says: “Never give up, because it can get you down sometimes if somebody doesn’t like what you say or what you do. You get bored and angry sometimes with what you do, but you can always do better.”
His 80th birthday exhibition reveals the latest step in that ongoing journey – he’s looking forward to it, but it has made him aware of his age.
“It is a bit sort of ‘lost a shilling and found sixpence’ isn’t it,” he smiles. “It’s nice that there is so much interest. But on the other hand, I do have to be 80 in order to do it. I don’t feel 80, I must say.”
Nor does he seem it. Here’s to many more Harry Holland exhibitions.
Harry Holland’s 80th birthday exhibition is at Martin Tinney Gallery until October 2
Renowned figurative painter Harry Holland is celebrating his 80th birthday with a new exhibition. The Cardiff-based artist told Jenny White how it feels to reach this milestone…