For Jonathan Myles-Lea, painting houses was more than a vocation. It was an obsession that took him to some of the most well-known and coveted private homes around the world. Through this work – and through his exceptional network – he met many influential, interesting and outspoken people from the worlds of the arts, politics, the Church and high society.
Never formally trained, Jonathan was a talented painter from a young age but really came into his own whilst reading history of art and architecture at the University of London. Regarded as the Charles Ryder of his day, he was driven by a love of beauty, something he shared with many of his Catholic counterparts, and that took him frequently to Italy and, of course, Rome. Jonathan intensely disliked the socialist discourse that was popular among his contemporaries at university, so he took an evening job at Channel 4 as a continuity announcer. With his deep, rich RP, he took to the work like a duck to water and often said that he was later asked to “move on” when Channel 4 deemed him “too posh”. Nonetheless, it was during his time at Channel 4 that he became associated with the glittering artistic crowd who graced the Colony Room in Soho. Jonathan often told the story about the day he was first introduced to Maggi Hambling, George Melly and Francis Bacon at that famous celebrity haunt:
“For some unfathomable reason I was dressed that day head to toe in white. It was midsummer, and terribly hot. But, as anyone who lives or visits London will know, wearing anything white in that city is a sign that one is either insane or is visiting from Jordan. The air, even today, is laden with all manner of pollutants, but I’d travelled straight from Channel 4’s offices in Charlotte Street into Soho by taxi, and therefore my outfit had the appearance of pure, driven snow. A slight hush fell upon the room as my companion gently placed his hand into the small of my back. Pushing me, rather too assertively I thought, into a space in the centre of the room, directly in front of Francis Bacon. As he did so, he whispered the words ‘Baptism of fire!’ into my ear. And then, more loudly: ‘This is Jonathan. He’s a Christian!’”
The announcement provoked exactly the reaction Jonathan’s companion had hoped for. As Jonathan abruptly came to a halt, inches from Bacon’s face, the room fell very quiet. Ian Board, then owner of the Colony, broke the silence. “A Christian?!” he roared. “A Christian?! Get ’im out! We don’t want no Christians in ’ere, dear!”. But before Ian could say another word, Bacon had grabbed Jonathan by the forearm and said, rather loudly, “Oh shut up, Ian!” and then, directed at Jonathan: “I find it fascinating if anyone believes in anything. Come over here and tell me all about yourself.”
From then on, a friendship formed between the two artists that ultimately set Jonathan on a new path. One night, six months before Bacon died, he told Jonathan: “Unless you become a professional painter, you’ll never be truly happy. Leave London now, or you’ll end up like all us old soaks.” Jonathan took his advice and travelled up to stay with his friend, the interior designer Cornelia Bayley, at Plas Teg, her enormous but crumbling Jacobean house in north Wales. It was whilst he was here that he painted his first country house in the style that he became recognised by internationally – a highly detailed and traditional bird’s-eye perspective inspired by the 16th-century Flemish painter Giusto Utens’s depictions of the Medici villas. Speaking about his time at Plas Teg, his host and friend Cornelia Bayley commented recently: “I have very fond memories of Jonathan – he lived at Plas Teg for some time when he was an aspiring artist. I asked him to paint the house and the result was so wonderful, I encouraged him to seek out more commissions. He was mercurial but magical.”
Taking Cornelia’s advice, Jonathan set out to make a name for himself as a traditional country house portraitist. Placing a small advert in Country Life magazine, he was surprised by the overwhelming response. One of the respondents was the former V&A director Sir Roy Strong who commissioned Jonathan to paint his formal garden in Herefordshire ,known as “The Laskett” (the largest formal garden to be created in the UK since the Second World War). Thus began a lifelong friendship which saw Sir Roy become a traditional patron to young Jonathan. Sir Roy’s contact book became Jonathan’s and he soon found himself painting the houses and gardens of the great and the good of Britain and indeed the US. Lady Victoria Leatham commissioned him to paint a series of portraits of Burghley House which were later featured in Country Life (continuing the relationship that Jonathan had built with the magazine in his early years). He spent so much time at the houses he painted that he often became good friends of the owners. In the case of the Rocks at Burghley, he spoke of them often as though they were family. Other portraits included the Bamford family’s houses at Daylesford and Wootton, and several National Trust properties including Stowe and Blickling, the latter commissioned by Nicky Haslam.
Jonathan’s relationship with Country Life magazine was later reinforced when he was asked by editor Mark Hedges to join forces with another patron of Jonathan’s – Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Lady Lennox-Boyd – in the magazine’s “Dream Acres” series. This series saw the gradual creation, over several weeks, of a dream garden.
Speaking of their time working together, Hedges commented of Jonathan: “Jonathan had the unique ability to see a landscape as a soaring buzzard would see it, rather than as a human would.” In 2009, Jonathan was asked by the Prince of Wales to create a pen and ink map of the Prince’s residence in Gloucestershire, Highgrove. Twelve years later the map is still in use. Among his American commissions was a large portrait of Oprah Winfrey’s house in Santa Barbara and a painting of the Frick Collection Gardens in New York.
Born in Southport, Lancashire, in 1969, Jonathan Myles-Lea was an only child who showed great promise from an early age. His father worked in local government and his mother was a school secretary. After attending Hutton Grammar School for five years he won an arts scholarship to Malvern College for the sixth form.
Two years later, while studying at the University of London, Jonathan perfected the paint-mixing skills that he would use for the rest of his life. “By day I read the history of art and architecture and by night I was an alchemist,” he once said. He spent three years learning how to make the perfect gesso from rabbit-skin glue and chalk dust, and he meticulously followed Leonardo da Vinci’s instructions on how to apply the verdaccio method. He prepared all his own canvases and made all the frames himself, too, right up until he was physically unable to do so.
In recent years, Jonathan found great joy in Bath where he lived in the Royal Crescent. He travelled extensively, particularly to his beloved Italy and worked without an agent, preferring to represent himself. His prolific Instagramming gave delight both to himself and to all who knew him, and he curated a rich and varied profile that featured everything from his thoughts on politics and beautiful paintings to pictures of rosaries and sculptures of the saints. He found new friends and likeminded souls through social media, and over the past decade he became a disciple of the late Conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton and a champion of free speech.
Jonathan was always keen to hear other people’s perspectives on things, and no one could deny that he was gracious and kind to everyone, even those he disagreed with. Jonathan was gay, but hated identity politics and would always define himself by his art, his philosophies and his love of life. In the months leading up until his passing, Jonathan found great joy and hope in his faith, often quoting Bible verses and hymns to friends, both in person and through social media.
A very loyal friend and champion of traditional craftsmen, Jonathan left his archive, and a financial donation, to the Prince’s Foundation in support of young artists.
Jonathan Myles-Lea was born on 23 January 1969. He died of cancer on 25 August 2021, aged 52. A memorial service will be held
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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