Cambridge artist Jon Harris has been documenting life in the city through art for more than 50 years

PUBLISHED: 10:29 25 September 2018

Artist Jon Harris at work in King Street, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Artist Jon Harris at work in King Street, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

Published by Cambridge company Lutterworth Press, Artist About Cambridge charts an artistic journey

A sketch from the book Artist About Cambridge by Jon HarrisA sketch from the book Artist About Cambridge by Jon Harris

Jon Harris has lived in the same city centre flat since 1964.

He has painted and sketched Cambridge since he first moved here to study architecture at Trinity Hall in 1961 at the age of 18.

Edited by Patrick Carnegy and with Rob Howard serving as associate editor, this is the first published collection of Mr Harris’ artwork.

In 1997, the Fitzwilliam Museum honoured him with an exhibition of some 90 paintings and drawings, some of which were taken from more than 40 sketchbooks.

Artist About Cambridge by Jon HarrisArtist About Cambridge by Jon Harris

Jon’s work does not represent the tourist’s vision of Cambridge, but rather his fascination with its less visible sights.

“I did architecture for a year [at university] but was insufficiently gifted in mathematics and design to continue, so I was shown the door,” he recalls.

“I’d come from boarding school and I got an exhibition to Cambridge, which meant that I was paid for by the local authority.”

Originally from Stoke-on-Trent and the son of a naval officer, Jon says: “Art may have been more my escape from school than my passion, but it grew into a passion at school.”

A sketch from the book Artist About Cambridge by Jon HarrisA sketch from the book Artist About Cambridge by Jon Harris

Jon says he did enough to get him through part one of his degree at Cambridge. “Then I was lucky enough to get two years of art history, which was actually attached to the architecture school,” he notes.

Interestingly, the satirist Peter Cook once lived on the premises where Jon’s flat is located.

“I don’t know whether he was in this flat or the one that used to be below,” says Jon.

When Jon moved in, there was a cafe on the ground floor which has since changed hands many times. The former teacher says that the space is currently a Thai restaurant – and has been for around 20 years – “until lunchtime today” (Sunday, September 9).

Artist Jon Harris at work in King Street, Cambridge. Picture: Keith HeppellArtist Jon Harris at work in King Street, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The building will now be fully refurbished and the artist is moving to King’s Lynn.

“It’s time for a new adventure – that’s the way I’m looking at it,” he says.

Is Artist About Cambridge a farewell then to the city? “It wasn’t meant to be,” says Jon, who describes his style as “quite sober”, “but that’s how it’s ended up – a kind of serenade to a gone Cambridge.

“Cambridge is a stolid place, compared with what it was. It was full of spontaneity and it was much more fragile.”

He adds: “When I first arrived in Cambridge, it had the aspect of an industrial town because it was so grimy – it was covered with soot. And although it’s cleaned up a lot, there is still this feeling that it’s never quite washed behind
the ears.

“Looking at the backs of buildings, as I so often do, and looking at wonky gutters and the slightly sooty shadows under them – as well as the tops of chimneys – there are all sorts of odd patches in the brickwork and gleams of light where you get, for example, a kebab house chimney against the sun...”

Looking back, Jon concludes: “You didn’t have a landscape, you didn’t have a lawn you could go out on to, but you had these beautiful, mysterious acres of chimneys and slate roof always changing in the light.”

Artist About Cambridge will be launched in the Old Library at Emmanuel College on September 27. There are no places left.

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