British transplant Jonathan Myles-Lea has already painted the great estates of Europe. Now California beckons.
Nearly eight months ago, the tall and lanky Jonathan Myles-Lea stepped off the plane at LAX, a Briton about to be replanted in the arid California basin. The internationally recognized landscape painter had already hit all the high points of his career: the Prince of Wales’ Highgrove Gardens, Princess Salimah Aga Khan’s Provençal abode, Oprah’s Montecito refuge and elaborate compounds outside Moscow and Shanghai.
“I’ve done so many paintings for commission,” the white-jeans-clad artist proclaims. “Will the client like it? You never really relax.” So, in his comfy bungalow in Hollywood, surrounded by elegant Eames chairs, a wood-and-iron-wrapped table, and inlaid cabinets filled with curios of white and glass, 44-year-old Myles-Lea created only the second painting he’s ever done just for pleasure as a professional artist.
The scene is typical L.A.: bleached sun penetrating down upon two palm trees, the whites extra-extra white, bold stripes and a cloudless blue sky. It’s a new direction, but it’s easy to spot threads of continuity from his previous oeuvre documenting great estates. Look at the flatness of the picture, the precision of the shapes, its graphic nature, the studied exactitude that emanates from the canvas. “I love geometry and straight lines,” he says.
His scrupulous style is entirely self-taught. Myles-Lea never attended art school, never went on the art fair circuit; today he still doesn’t have a gallery or dealer—not that that’s affected his career, which continues to flourish purely by word of mouth. He began by teaching himself to paint by copying Hans Holbein the Younger, and then a chance encounter with the late artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in 1990 forever altered the course of his life.
At the time, Myles-Lea was working for Channel 4 in London as a television presenter and studying History of Art and Architecture at the University of London. His boss took him to the tiny—often described as squalid—drinking den called The Colony Room in Soho, famous for harboring drunken poets, writers and artists. Bacon was there. “My boss introduced me as an artist,” Myles-Lea says, “and Bacon asked me what I was interested in, telling me, ‘I’m inspired by evil.’ My boss answered, ‘Oh, that’s not very nice, Francis,’” he says, laughing.
Repeat visits to The Colony Room often meant that Myles-Lea was privy to the wild binges of the artistic set. On one occasion, Bacon had just sold a painting to a Japanese bank, which meant Champagne for all, and the next thing Myles-Lea knew, he was waking up in Bacon’s studio to the sound of scratching. “He was painting on an easel and copying his own style from a postcard,” Myles-Lea says. Bacon told him he was a real artist and needed to resign from his job.
“He was like this father figure, saying this to me,” Myles-Lea recalls. “And I trusted him.”
After leaving television, Myles-Lea moved into the large, rambling, 12-bedroom estate Plas Teg in Wales, where the lady of the house asked him to paint the property, which was stuffed to the brim with live exotic birds, huge dogs and kittens. As part of earning his keep, he helped feed the animals and led tours. “We didn’t have much money,” he remembers. “I call it ‘stately squalor’ because the parrots ate better than we did—kiwi fruits and walnuts-—while we had powdered soup.” Eventually, his mother, also an artist, decided he’d spent long enough with the birds and the beasts and brought him home.
From there the commissions started pouring in. He posted an advertisement in Country Life in 1991 and received five phone calls the next morning. For his style of landscape painting, the process is agonizingly deliberate. He uses a 17th-century technique, beginning by creating handmade canvases made from wood wrapped in linen. Myles-Lea treats the canvas with several applications of homemade gesso (hot water, rabbit-skin glue granules and chalk dust). He uses Old Holland paints, a brand launched in 1664 and employed by old masters such as Vermeer.
To accurately distill the property, Myles-Lea meets with clients five or six times, creating what he calls “layers” from which to paint. The first comes from the traditional surveying notes, made after looking at ground plans, counting trees, confirming where the land ends and a pond begins. Then there are the layers of color, taken in by visiting the grounds at different times of the year. Finally, the human interest element: What area does the family use the most? Where do the dogs like to sit? Where are the animals and birds on the property? He compiles photographs and sketches before launching into the über-detailed work. “Every painting kills me,” he says cheerfully. Every tree and every brick must be exact; the images are embedded with ciphers, symbols, coats of arms. It takes six to eight months to complete a single work.
Myles-Lea also expanded into portraiture in a most unusual fashion: with a commission to paint the queen. He was working on a commission at Burghley House in 1997, when the owner asked him if he knew anybody who painted portraits. “I said I’d think about it, and she answered, ‘It’s a shame, because I’m looking for someone to paint the queen.’”
When he was driving home, “I remembered the conversation, and I called her back, quickly. ‘Have I just turned down the opportunity to paint the queen?’ She said, ‘Yes, I think you have.’”
A couple of days later, the royal office organized a sitting at St. James’s Palace. Myles-Lea asked Her Majesty to wear the Order of the Garter robes, which were originally designed in the 16th century, because the painting was to be placed in Drapers’ Hall (part of an old guild founded nearly 600 years ago), and across from one of his early influences: a Holbein portrait of Henry the VIII, who had donated the land to the guild. “I asked her if she could stand by the window [for better light],” he says. “And she said, ‘Oh, no, I can’t stand by the window.’ I asked her why and she said, ‘The last time I did that, a taxi driver looked up and saw me and crashed.’”
Today, portraits are just another portion of Myles-Lea’s creative output, which also includes photography. He recently painted Evelyn Lauder, and shortly after, Evelyn’s son’s wife contacted him about doing their family in Palo Alto. That portrait, finished just last September, places the group in a classical frieze composition, with the mother gazing at the daughter (a great-granddaughter of Estée Lauder’s), the daughter gazing at her father, the son at his mother. The painting whispers with life, and of conversation, of pride and love and complicated relationships. But that’s not the only reason he’s here in California. It’s time for a change.
Currently, Myles-Lea is delightedly traveling all over L.A., capturing his thoughts on the Hollywod sign, James Turrell at LACMA, and Joshua Tree National Park in his blog, While the Paint Dries, and exploring an entirely new direction: working on modern paintings of charismatic buildings in Palm Springs and Los Angeles. “This is my favorite place,” he says definitively. “I can’t seem to go to sleep because I’m so excited. It’s the light. It changes the color of things and makes it so vivid it has a psychological effect on me. I feel so energized.”
And as for all those beautifully detailed garden paintings? “I don’t want to repeat myself, but the Getty Villa would be quite fun, or the White House,” Myles-Lea muses, with a twinkle in his eye.
Written and Edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler
Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt