Felix Chadwick-Histed is the youngest artist ever to have a work selected for the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition.
Ten-year-old Felix Chadwick-Histed wants to be an architect when he grows up. Edith Devaney, senior curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, hopes he’ll change his mind. Edith has just hung the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the oldest and most prestigious open art show in the world. From around 11,000 submissions – many from leading professional artists including Paula Rego, Tracey Emin and Keith Coventry – the judges selected one by Felix, who is now almost certainly the youngest person ever to be exhibited in the show’s 244-year history.
Trees, Felix’s picture, is a work in oils and acrylic on canvas. “Even to be working in this way at 10 is very unusual,” says Edith. “Most children of his age would be using crayons or watercolours – oils and acrylics are quite challenging even for adults. Being in the summer exhibition is an amazing start to his career … he is definitely one to watch,” she says.
But this isn’t the story of a prodigy: Felicity and Chris, Felix’s parents, believe their son’s talent comes from early exposure to art in a very direct way. The reason for that exposure is at least partly because of the presence in Felix’s life of his 13-year-old brother Sebastian, who has autism, with learning difficulties and complex needs.
Sebastian – known as Bassie in his family – was diagnosed when he was four. His parents had suspected he had problems. “We’d known from perhaps 18 months,” says Felicity. “He wasn’t meeting his milestones and clearly found it difficult to communicate.”
But from his earliest weeks, Felicity and Chris had been taking Bassie on their favourite days out, to art galleries. “I remember heaving his buggy into the Royal Academy when he was just a few months old,” says Chris. “He loved it … he loved every gallery we ever visited.”
As he got older, it was about more than Bassie just enjoying what he saw. “I’m sure that for a lot of families, looking at art is just a lovely thing to do,” says Felicity. “But for us it was so much more – we realised that, for Bassie, art was a way to communicate with us and with the rest of the world.”
Paintings fascinated him: and as he got older and started to paint himself, it allowed him to unlock emotions inside himself that he was unable to articulate. “He can have a good day or a bad day at school, but when he comes home he can paint it and express how he feels,” says Felicity.
“I can see, looking at his artwork, what’s been happening.” Blues and dark colours in his work, says Chris, usually signal that Bassie is having a tough time; when he paints in orange, yellow and pink, it means he’s feeling positive and happy.
So by the time Felix came along, visits to art galleries and art holidays in Europe had become more than a pastime for Felicity and Chris; they were a lifeline, a way to help Bassie learn to express himself. “So Felix, from his earliest days, was there in galleries with us, soaking it all up,” says Felicity. “It had become crucial to Bassie, but Felix benefited enormously.”
As the years rolled by, being so plugged into art began to shape both boys’ lives. As well as out-of-school art classes, Felicity and Chris, who run a publishing business from their home in south-west London, found an artist to teach both boys at home, together.
“It was a bonding experience for them; often in a family with a special-needs child, that child is continually taken off to do different things at a different level,” says Chris.
“Art enabled our boys to learn, and to achieve, together. The teacher treated them both the same – so despite being at different ends of the spectrum, they were learning together in the same way. And they both produced quite outstanding art.”
Both the boys’ most recent work – and that includes Felix’s piece for the summer exhibition – has been heavily influenced by a trip the family made to Paris earlier this year. “We’ve been looking particularly at Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard and Monet,” says Chris. “We’ve looked at the way they’ve created their pictures at brushstroke level. When we’ve looked at how they do it, we have a go. Children learn about art from finding out how artists create what they create and then trying it out themselves.”
The family home is festooned with pictures that look, to the untrained eye, like early pieces by Rothko, Turner or Miró: in fact, says Chris, they are works inspired by these greats, but made by a 10 year old and a 13 year old with special needs. He shows me a painting by Bassie after he’d studied a work by Turner, with brushstrokes of rich orange and pink.
“They were playing Elgar during the art class and you can see the emotion that Bassie has put into the piece, inspired by both Turner and Elgar.”
“We think Bassie hears sound as colour,” says Felicity, “so his work always reflects what he’s hearing at the time.”
Felix’s painting for the Royal Academy was inspired by a tree he walks past every morning on the way to school. “I took photographs of it and looked at them a lot, then I did studies and then my painting,” says Felix. “It probably took me about eight hours.”
It was Chris’s idea to submit a work to the summer exhibition, after Felix’s school suggested he could consider applying for a secondary school art scholarship.
“Lots of people don’t realise that the Royal Academy summer show really is an open event – absolutely anyone can enter a piece,” says Chris.
The family are thrilled at Felix’s success and are hoping Bassie will get similar recognition later this year – they have entered some work by him into Outside In, an annual exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester for artists who find it difficult to access traditional routes into art because of disability, health or social circumstances. “It means a huge amount to both our boys to have their work validated in this way,” says Chris. “It’s a massive boost to their confidence.”
• The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, 4 June – 12 August. Further information: royalacademy.org.uk
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