Hare Today

The moving story behind our very first cover artist’s 2022 series.

A middle-aged woman emerges from the sea, looking longingly at her shoes on the shingle, some way in front of her. A young, yellow-topped girl monkey-swings on a seaside balustrade. A bobble-hatted female figure strides up a snowy path in the mountains, towards the welcome warmth of a chalet.

Snapshots of everyday lives, deftly painted in acrylics, on linen. No sense of the who, or the where, or the when. Welcome to the ambiguous, deliciously wistful world of Fergus Hare.

And just to think that a few years ago, Fergus was primarily a painter of unpeopled landscapes, crafted in oils, in the open air. And space-scapes, too: an expert at painting the moon.

There’s a lot of talk of ‘narrative’ in art, and the word is particularly appropriate in relation to Fergus Hare’s work. Later we’ll look at the way in which he invokes a narrative in the mind of the viewer, imagining the before and after of the moment he has seized, Cartier Bresson-like, in each of his paintings.

But first, his own narrative. How did he get to where he is now? And where is he going, with his art?

Fergus Hare was born in 1977, in South London, and was drawn to art because his two older brothers were good at it, and he “wanted to be like them”.

He’s telling me this in the fine studio he has recently had built in the back garden of the Portslade home he lives in with his wife and two kids. If an artist’s studio represents the mind of that artist, then Fergus is neat, well-organised. In-progress paintings are hung on the wall; finished ones are stacked in purpose-built racks, carefully wrapped in see-through plastic. He decorated the room himself, immaculately.

Fergus’s mother died when he was 18, after which (actually, he later tells me, because of which) he decided to go to art school. He got a place at Norwich School of Art & Design, on an illustration course. His brother was already studying photography at the same college; he had relatives in Suffolk. During this traumatic period, it was important to be near family.

He was heavily influenced by the work of NC Wyeth, the American painter (and Andrew Wyeth’s father) who specialised in adventure-story book covers: “Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, that sort of thing”. He sold the painting he exhibited in his graduate show, a book cover design for Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This was in 1999, two years after the YBA’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, when catchy conceptualism was king.

Fergus’s work, it is quite safe to say, was deeply untrendy. But he didn’t care. He wanted to do his own thing, more interested in 19th-century British landscape artists than selfportraits in frozen blood, or bed-partner memoirs. Constable, Gainsborough, Joseph Wright of Derby.

At this point he couldn’t yet make a living from art, so he did so in art. While developing his plein-air landscape style, in his spare time, he took on a series of jobs.

He worked in pubs in South London – how many artists haven’t pulled pints? – but also for a top-rung art-handling specialist, 01 Art Services, where he learnt to hang and handle pictures. “Once,” he tells me, “I had a Lautrec, a Hirst, a Warhol, and a Pissarro in the back of the van. My boss told me not to stop until I got to the gallery.”

And in his free time, he painted. And painted, and painted. His ‘ten thousand hours’ was spent in front of canvas and easel, in all weathers, in South London and – when he could afford to get away – in Suffolk, and Ireland, and Cornwall. He got bloody good at painting hills, and clouds. He developed a distinct visual voice.

Fergus moved to Brighton, in 2010, and became assistant to Turner Prizewinning artist Keith Tyson. His earnings enabled him to run a studio, and he shifted his subject-matter from the world around him, to the worlds above him. He’d always been obsessed by Space; he’d chosen the Apollo Landings as the subject for his third-year dissertation, for which he blames his less-than-perfect grades. He bought himself a telescope – a Skywalker 8” Reflector – and started “painting through it.” Deeply influenced by Galileo’s lunar sketches, he decided to represent the moon “in an emotional way, rather than attempting accuracy.”

And then came his big break.

In 2011, he caught the eye of the Lewes gallerist Sarah O’Kane, a specialist in representing emerging Sussex-based talent. He became part of her stable, his work displayed in regular group shows, until 2013 when he was given a solo exhibition, The Horizon Rim, in Pelham House in Lewes. Another star turn for O’Kane, this time in St Anne’s Galleries –Beneath the Moon – followed in 2015. He was picked up by New Art Projects, too, who gave him a couple of solo shows in their Hackney gallery. In 2018, one of his paintings was shown next to a seascape of his early hero John Constable, at an exhibition in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. His career was taking off. His star, if you’ll pardon the astronomical metaphor, was in the ascendency.

I had a Lautrec, a Hirst, a Warhol, and a Pissarro in the back of the van. My boss told me not to stop until I got to the gallery.

So what do you do, when you’ve made your name as a lunar artist? Fergus Hare, while still an “amateur astronomer at heart” decided to change tack. And medium. He went back to landscapes. But he no longer felt the need to sit outside, painting what he saw in front of him, in oils. He worked from his memory and imagination, in soft pastels. In his studio he could work “longer, and bigger”. He “created places that could be real, but they aren’t”. “You can get away with quite a lot with skies,” he says, “because no two are the same”. And: “I don’t go into too much detail, so I don’t get into too much trouble.” He generally set these poignant scenes at dusk, using the powdery quality of the medium to evoke the look and mood of the dying day. Those ‘ten thousand hours’ were coming in handy.

Did I say: ‘change tack’? Hare might have shifted from one modus operandi to another, but the mood of his pieces –gentle, quiet, timeless – remained, essentially, the same. It’s only recently that he fully realised what it was – who it was – that drove that mood.

Hare first started working in acrylics in 2016, on a painting trip to Snowdonia. He now hardly ever uses any other type of paint. “I don’t think I’ve painted in oils for two years”, he says. “I love the way it [using acrylics] works. The speed I can get things done with it.” Making people the subject of his paintings, as he almost always currently does, followed three years later. “I started using old photos as source material,” he says. Sometimes old family photos, sometimes ones he’d recently taken. “Using acrylics helps achieve effects without too much detail, so they don’t look like reproductions of photographs.”

If you look at a photo you immediately want to know who it depicts, where it was taken, and when it was taken. The reason photos are captioned is to give you this information. Fergus’s paintings deliberately avoid giving you any of that. There’s no who, there’s no where, there’s no when. And you’ll find no clue in the titles. There is, instead, a delicious and deliberate equivocality about the images. “I avoid giving too much facial detail, as it’s not relevant who the subjects are. You can create character much better through poses, anyway. And clothes.”

All this timeless ambiguity lends the paintings an ‘everyman’ quality. You might not recognise the person Hare has depicted, but something about the essence of his figures reminds you of someone you do know. A relative? A friend? A neighbour? Sometimes, even, you are reminded of yourself.

It perturbs him, rather, that he is often compared to Edward Hopper. “I don’t see it, myself,” he says. “I studied his work doing GCSE, but I haven’t paid much attention since. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the comparison.” He cites Bob Dylan as his biggest artistic influence (“though not for his artwork, for his lyrics, and for his way of being. He taught us how to live, and how to be an artist.”)

I can see the Hopper in his work, though, even if he may have come to similar conclusions via a different route. There’s a loneliness about his paintings, a wash of melancholy. His figures carry an emotional charge, which heightens your desire to know where they have come from, and where they are going. If these were stills from a movie, you’d want to watch the whole film.

A few days after my interview with Fergus, he gives me the key to understanding his work, in an email, responding to a couple of queries I have. “I can connect a line of every piece I have done to my mother,” he writes. “As if I am trying to contact her with what I do, as if she were alive. Not in subject, necessarily, but emotionally. I realised that quite recently, and things started making sense for me, when I did.”

Whatever subject matter Fergus chooses for his next series of works, whenever he might choose to make that shift, you can guarantee that the paintings will hit the same poignant note.

A pre-teen girl, holding a yellow plastic racket, in the shadow of a swingball pole, waits nervously for the ball to come her way. A matronly figure stares across a bay at the skyscrapers on the far shore. A young mother urges an unwilling child across a daisy-flecked lawn, towards a summerhouse. Snapshots of everyday lives, deftly painted in acrylics, on linen. Welcome to the ambiguous, deliciously wistful world of Fergus Hare.

Words by Alex Leith