His work is large-scale, intense and thick with sculptural colour, and Hugh Miller has been described as expressing “a new language of painting”. He tells Sheena Hastings why it’s taken him so long to talk about it. Main pictures by James Hardisty.
ONE of the leading oil paint companies took a close look at the geographical spread of their sales a while ago, and found that there had been a peculiar spike in business in the north of England, which could be pinned down to one art shop in Skipton. They talked to the shop owner, who said that a single artist was solely responsible for those sales. It was Hugh Miller.
While no artist likes to run anywhere close to short of supplies, keeping on top of the demand Miller’s work creates must make manufacturer, shop and delivery company very happy indeed.
Having worked in other formats and with different subject matter, as his style developed and he found the place he was happiest to express his ideas, Miller’s practice has expanded into large-scale canvases (the smallest are 7ft by 7ft) which which bring indoors the depth, movement, glorious colours and textures of the natural world – or the teeming life and character of a city from some lofty vantage point like the top of London’s Shard, the Sacre Coeur in Paris or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.
In the foreground of his 24ft wide Bluebell Wood the heavy-headed flowers almost wave in the draught. The foreground is fashioned in up to three inches of oils, and it looks as though some individual petals have swallowed at least half a tube. They challenge the senses; your nostrils are looking for the scent of those flowers.
As the carpet of blues and greens recedes into the distance, the coverage of paint becomes thinner and the detail more indistinct, a film spooling away from you. Hag Wood in all its May glory is captured better here than in any photograph. Making this one work cost £27,000 in paint.
It’s easy to see why someone with the cash and space not only to hang, but also to stand back and properly admire these riotous waterfalls, flora and fauna and cityscapes, would walk in here and snap them up. Miller has mostly worked to commission for people with large homes or businesses, and although he exhibits in London and tries to put together collections for other shows around the country, they tend to disappear before the show happens.
“Holding back work is difficult, especially pieces that may take weeks or months to finish. You can end up not earning anything for a year while you gather together enough work for a show.”
Add to this his natural reticence to talk about his work (“I’d much rather let it speak for itself”) and the fact that he enjoys solitude, revelling in occasionally being snowed in for four days over Christmas, he’s a PR and marketing nightmare. But that in itself has charm.
His father, Hugh John Miller, was a photographer and his mother Anna a ceramicist; his maternal grandfather Reg Hayden was a painter, printmaker, teacher and best friend of Henry Moore. It would have been surprising and even an act of rebellion, then, if Hugh Miller had not started drawing and painting quite seriously while others were still getting a chubby-handed grip on a box of crayons.
An only child who spent his first six years in Harrogate, holidays were happy days passed learning at Reg’s knee, in the hills surrounding his home in Wales. Reg was passing on to his grandson the pillars of wisdom – colour theory, composition and life drawing – he had also taught the latter to the young David Hockney at Bradford College.
Many childhood hours spent making art, whether in Yorkshire, Wales or over on the Fylde Coast after his parents split and his mother remarried, were perfect training for the kind of life he has led over the last 20 years since leaving the deeply conceptual womb of Chelsea College of Art, where he was taught by Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili among other luminaries.
Even for an artist, he is exceptionally solitary. Some years ago he left a smaller studio in north Lancashire, looking out to the Cumbrian hills, and moved into 6,000 sq ft of disused flax mill in the Dales, where he is entwined with encroaching nature.
The ivy that probably took hold 100 years ago, has crept in where the odd broken pane allows; woodland is all around, and a spectacular hill of many greens sometimes loses its crown of cloud. There’s no kitchen, no-one to chat to – and he loves it. Working for up to 15 hours a day when he’s on a roll, Miller never listens to music or radio. His exercise is walking back and forth to the table that’s groaning with hillocks of every imaginable shade of paint. The act of painting on big canvases is of itself an upper-body workout.
The walk away from and back to the canvas also gives time for reflection and perspective on the whole arc of the painting, he says.
One mentor compared him to Hockney, but he doesn’t see much likeness. “I like him and we are both attracted to nature around us in Yorkshire, but he uses less paint and his technique is different.
“I feel I was very lucky to be surrounded by the people who taught me and influenced me. Before Chelsea I did a foundation course at Fylde Foundation College, taught by Norman Travis and Peter Flowers.
“My years at Chelsea were a time of conflict and great excitement in art, and there were big, controversial shows like Lucien Freud’s The Pursuit of the Real. Different movements were in opposition to each other and I was interested in them all.
“I came away understanding that there has to be a visual phenomenon that works and an aesthetic presence. You also have to think hard all the time about what you’re painting, its narrative.”
It seems as though, with his herculean bluebell wood, he’s using traditional painting techniques but pushed to the edge of some avant garde artistic proposition. That’s what raises it above a mere representation of delightful nature.
People have extended their houses rather than compromise on the size of a painting they want to commission – be it an 18-foot cityscape or a series of four 8f by 3ft pieces.
“For me what’s important is to develop a good series of paintings… I want to paint work that is beyond my imagination, and the way I use paint is part of that. If I could see a finished work in my head before I started, then I wouldn’t need to paint it. There has to be the excitement and uncertainty about where things will go.
“It’s only when you’re mixing paint and see different colours evolving on the palette that new ideas evolve which you couldn’t necessarily have imagined. As the texture becomes more prominent on the canvas it takes on a life of its own and goes beyond the subject matter. It’s about expressing the subject in a new way.”
Looking sideways at his Bradford At Dusk Looking Towards Lister Mill, his words are made real. A tight yet fluid mass of red, orange and above all yellow, it’s like no other image of the great former textile city. It is Bradford with new life breathed into it – in texture that could have been designed in some wild textile mill, and made up in the shades of exquisite summer saris.
You get the feeling that, at 41, Hugh Miller is well and truly in the artistic zone. But, while he’s achieving painterly desires and now coming out of his mill (just a little), there is something missing. “I see married friends with great kids and I envy them,” he admits. “I’d like all that and have had some lovely girlfriends. But living with a bloke who forgets to come home sometimes and then tramples paint everywhere can be difficult. I am married to my work… but I would like to find her.”
• Colour and Form, a series of paintings, can be seen at BNP Paribas, 55, Moorgate, London ECPR 6PA until June 2015. His work may also be viewed in his studio by appointment via www.hughmillerart.co.uk