How Irish ‘mermaid’ saved the life of Charles Church
Mysterious woman’s foul-mouthed warning forced the painter to escape a closing tide
There is, for followers of equine art, nothing quite like a Charles Church exhibition. He is Britain’s nearest modern equivalent in style to Sir Alfred Munnings and Church’s show, Studies and Landscapes, at Gallery 8 in Duke Street, London, opened yesterday and runs until Saturday. It includes studies of the Arc winner Found, the Derby winner Camelot, the Derby and Arc winner Golden Horn, as well as hounds, cattle and, increasingly, landscapes which, he points out, are a very good exercise between horses.
Like all good painters, Church, 47, suffered for his art. He dropped out of art school and moved as a teenager to Newmarket, where he washed dishes in the Swynford Paddocks Hotel. That allowed him to paint during the day until the town’s art gallery bought his entire stock, enabling him to enrol at the Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence for two years, learning old-master techniques.
He moved back to Lambourn, where it proved something of a schoolboy error to share a house with Kim Bailey’s then assistant, Eddie Hales. It was ultimately a threat from his bank manager to withdraw his overdraft facility that prompted Church to move to Dorset, or anywhere, at least, away from Hales, who was leading him astray. In Dorset, he spent nine months in a caravan on a farm before moving into a derelict thatched cottage which he rented for the princely sum of £1 a year. Seven years ago he bought a house. In March, while preparing for this exhibition, he knocked down his studio, which was facing northeast, and rebuilt it facing due north to get the best light for painting.
Painting can be a lonely business, so this year he set off to Connemara with fellow landscape painter Ollie Akers-douglas. One day they found a nice spot to paint at Glassilaun – a long spectacular stretch of beach which has some rocks at one end, providing the perfect view of the beach with mountains behind. Arriving at low tide, they assumed they might have a small wade back after painting but then, engrossed in their work, forgot all about that. After a couple of hours, Church glanced up from his easel to catch the extraordinary sight of a slim brunette wading through the sea towards them in her knickers, the closest thing to an Irish mermaid you could imagine.
He pointed out the vision of beauty approaching them to Akers-douglas, and he was pretty dumbstruck, too. As she got closer, she stopped and shouted; “Get off the f------ rocks – the tide’s coming in and you’ll f------ drown!”
Neither man had ever packed his easel as fast in his life and, by the time they got off, the sea was shoulder level as they waded back to the safety of the beach. But the mysterious mermaid, their lifesaver whose vernacular suggested she had been hanging around the docks, had vanished.
Are horses psychic? Owner William Wood believes his filly Magic Mirror, trained in Oxfordshire by Mark Rimell, at least has a sixth sense because of her routine; she stops progressing, is entered in the sales in despair, she wins two on the bounce, they withdraw her from the sale, she goes off the boil, they enter her in another sale – most recently the October Horses-in-training – she wins two on the bounce again.
Rather than extend the winning run to three, Wood is resigned to his fate and the filly, in the knowledge she is reprieved from the sale and the uncertainties of an unknown destination, is bound to start going backwards again.
“I’m telling the jockey not to use his stick,” said Wood, “but rather whisper to her during the closing stages that ‘a four-year-old filly by Dutch Art is lot 1705’ in the next sale. I’m hoping it does the trick.”
Equine beauty: A painting of Camelot