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Artist Spotlight: Hugo Grenville


Royal Society of British Artists Exhibition 2024  

From 29 Feb to 9 Mar 2024

The RBA Annual Exhibition gathers together the Society’s members, among the finest artists in the UK and beyond, to showcase their work alongside a selection of works by non-members, which are of the highest quality.


Interview with Hugo Grenville

Mall Galleries spoke with Hugo Grenville, an exceptionally talented artist who specialises in oil painting. Grenville masterfully creates a serene world with his collection of figure subjects and everyday objects. Through his work, he captures the very essence of joy in life, light and colour.

Can you tell me about your artistic background, what draws you to painting and your desire to visually record the world around you?

I was eleven years old when I was first bowled over by a painting. Whilst on a family holiday in France my parents had taken me to see the Louvre, where I encountered Delacroix’s monumental “Liberty Leading the Revolution”: a vast canvas packed with action, gun-smoke, boys and young men carrying pistols, and in the middle of this mêlée a beautiful woman in a low-cut dress holding a flag. I sat on the floor and gazed at the painting for half an hour. I loved stories as a child (I still do), and was entranced by this glorious woman hoisting aloft the Tricoleur in the middle of a battle, leading the revolutionaries over the barricades. The energy, the drama, the beauty of it all. I started painting at school shortly afterwards, watercolours of battle scenes, or other episodes from history, that caught my imagination. Later, as a teenager, I began painting landscapes out of doors in oil, won some school art prizes, and exhibited at the Chelsea Art Society aged 14, but it never occurred to me, or anyone in my family, that I should consider a career as an artist. So, I became first a soldier, taking my watercolours with me on operational duty to the civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, drawing and painting whenever I had time. I became a member of the Armed Forces Art Society. After leaving the army I worked for an American advertising agency in London, before setting up a business to commission art for office buildings and hotels. On Saturdays I would set off to paint the world around me, sitting on London Street corners, and on the towpath of the Regents Park Canal, making watercolours of urban life, answering a need that I could not clearly define.


Your body of work captures the joy of life, light and colour through everyday subjects. Your piece ‘Dreams and Reflections’, featured in the RBA Annual Exhibition 2024 at Mall Galleries, embodies the modern aesthetics in the portrayal of a woman in her mirror, a theme that you have explored multiple times. Why is this theme so important to you? Are you interested in capturing vanity or maybe escapism?

The women in my paintings have always been symbols of vulnerability, of gentleness, and of beauty. Perhaps this is a Quixotic view, especially in the strident, noisy and complex world of today, but it works for me aesthetically and emotionally. The poses are almost always arranged to suggest a contemplative state of mind. There is something perennially intriguing about posing this kind of scene in a mirror: the reflected space always appears to me more urgent, inviting and redolent of promise than the actual space I am standing in. It beckons to me with the promise of something better – if only one could step into this illusory world, life would be perfect. When I ask my model to pose in front of the mirror, it is the reflected image that draws me into the narrative of the scene, a colourful interior space that we can clearly see but are forbidden by physics to enter. I peer into the looking glass, and I am drawn into the psychology of the sitter’s mind. What is she thinking about? What are her dreams? What happens in this world of hers? My imagination is triggered by witnessing a scene that I can only witness, but not be part of, as though I was watching a film, and the woman, my model, has becomes a character in this story. But the fact that I am forbidden to step through the looking glass often leaves me wistful.


   We are interested in your painting technique, which reminds us of impressionist & pointillist artists such as George Seurat, whose work is characterised by small dot-like touches and flat patches of colour. How do you integrate these distinct elements to achieve the dreamlike qualities that characterise your work? Do you ever look at impressionist works, techniques and themes to find inspiration for a new piece?

If I had to define the way I apply the paint to the canvas in terms of Modern Art movements, I would say that it is essentially a fusion of Post Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism: the smaller dabs of dryish paint owe their origins to studying the work of Vuillard, Bonnard and Gauguin; the bigger, looser and wetter marks, into which I have drawn with big Sennelier oil sticks, are more a sort of borrowing from De Kooning. The opaque marks contrast with the transparent areas so that the surface is never still, and this sense of flux combines with a slight flattening of linear perspective, and an equalising approach to aerial perspective, which I call my process of democratisation; in other words, all the different areas of the picture surface are lit in the same way and thus treated in the same way, which gives the whole a sense of other-worldliness, or dreamlike quality.

Yes, I love looking at the work of the great Post Impressionist painters, and I do often find inspiration in the clarity of their visions. I am indebted to the three painters I have just mentioned above, who set me off on my path, and of course to Matisse for his glorious pattern-making, and to Klimt for his unashamed Romantic sensibility.

                      Photo by Mark Sepple


As an accomplished painter, what advice would you offer aspiring artists navigating their career in the art industry today?

The best advice I have ever been given as a painter was given to me 20 years ago by James Borynack, chairman of Findlay Galleries in New York: he had just signed me up to the gallery, and he patted me on the shoulder and said: “You have a distinctive vision of your own, so never look over your shoulder at what other people are doing, and ignore the fashions in the art world – your time will come”. Whether it ever comes or not, I do believe that his advice is the fundamental building block for any young painter: be yourself, and cultivate your own voice. Don’t try to paint what you think other people would like you to paint; don’t lose your integrity by trying to guess the market; just be true to yourself, paint only what you feel deeply, be completely authentic. I know the art world is a difficult place right now, and unrecognisable from when I set out as a painter in 1990, but over time the art that holds its own is work that is readily identifiable by its maker. It’s rare to look at a Matisse painting and not know that it is made by Matisse. In the end the originality and distinctiveness of an artist’s voice is what gives the work its enduring potential.

You can also visit Hugo’s home studio in West Milton, Dorset for the first time next month during Dorset Arts Week – on the weekend of Sat 25 May and Sun 26 May from 10 to 4 pm.

Directions to the studio here

For more information contact Angie Porter on 07747 758595 or email on assistant@hugogrenville.com

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© Copyright Hugo Grenville 2016