Mark Haddon: Portraits

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Mark Haddon, Paul (Farley), Gouache, 2012

While Oxford local Mark Haddon is known and revered for his writings – most notably his 2003 smash hit novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – a delightful and straightforward new mini exhibition at the Jam Factory uncovers his hidden career in illustration and an adept ability for painting.

Mark Haddon

“I have been making pictures as long as I have been writing” said Haddon. His illustrations have been used in The Guardian, Spectator and Private Eye, and of this illustrious early career Haddon has noted “I am almost certainly the only person who has ever worked simultaneously for the Banker and CND magazine”.

Mark Haddon, Sunetra (Gupta), Acrylic, 2016

Mark Haddon, Sunetra (Gupta), Acrylic, 2016

The line in all of Haddon’s paintings is incredibly clean and exacting, in some cases even design-like. He leaves jutting pencil marks demarcating angles and halfway lines clear under the gouache, a device that gives some of the portraits the feeling of a blueprint. In a portrait of a young boy the subject is framed in a thick square of monochromatic red. The boy’s hoodie is left uncoloured, and the angular form cutting into the pure colour gives the feeling of a poster. It seems feasible that any of the pictures could still be used at the top of a newspaper article, yet they have a quiet aesthetic quality that makes them sit just as well in frames on a gallery wall.

The gallery in question is the Jam Factory Arts Centre, a cafe/restaurant/bar and exhibition complex located just off Frideswide Square by Oxford train station. Housed in a Victorian factory building, the space has previously hosted exhibitions on women artists from the Slade School of Fine Art, and regularly exhibits local artists from Oxford and the surrounding area - and now Haddon.

Mark Haddon, Uta (Frith), Linoprint

Mark Haddon, Uta (Frith), Linoprint

Having had huge successes as a writer, the multi-talented 54-year old now believes that it is portraits that fascinate him more than anything else. Haddon says of portraits “When you do occasionally get it right, when you really capture someone, something mysterious happens. You know it’s only a flat piece of paper or canvas but you can’t shake the spooky conviction that there’s someone in there.” His portraits occasionally glimpse this quality, and when the idea of the real essence of the person is there, it is closer to the effect of a good photograph. This is in part because of the flatness of the pictures and in part because of the beautiful detail in which Haddon renders the faces of his subjects. The pictures also have a very casual, even intimate atmosphere, the subjects presented as though they are opposite us at a table. This intimacy is only heightened by Haddon’s subjects, made up of local friends and acquaintances.

Haddon has an excellent command of gouache. His pictures are rendered very delicately with the figures sitting against blank paper, suggesting that the artist’s brushwork is incapable of putting a foot wrong. There are several arresting little details: the deep blue wavy block of paint that makes up one sitter’s jumper; or the minute boxes of brown gouache that create the zigzags criss-crossing of a jacket. Another nice touch is the clever use of three joined frames to accommodate the full length of an exact, almost diagrammatic drawing of a sofa. The acrylic portraits are less effective and feel hampered: for instance in the portrait of local artist Mohamed Bushara, in which the inclusion of impasto backgrounds feels unnecessary next to the pleasing white paper backgrounds of the gouache pictures. In short, however, this is a simple exhibition that offers simple pleasures. It is free and the pictures have been placed in an old room with natural lighting, which has a very calming effect. Combined with the serene pictures and the well-stocked cafe next door, this is the perfect exhibition to visit for a quick hit of soothing art.

Mark Haddon: Portraits is on display until the 17 April. For more information, see The Jam Factory's website.