Jim Moir at Grosvenor Gallery

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Jim Moir owes his artistic start to a packet of cornflakes. As a schoolboy in Darlington in the Sixties, he entered a drawing competition on the back of a cereal box. His picture of a combine harvester won a prize, which, if he remembers rightly, was . . . another packet of cornflakes. Later he entered a competition in Jackie magazine. Under his sister's name he submitted a portrait of the T. Rex frontman, Marc Bolan. He won.


Combine harvesters and glam rock make a suitably surreal pairing for this champion of the absurd. Jim Moir is the given name and nom de brosse of the comedian Vic Reeves, the taller half of Reeves & Mortimer, who made it big in the Nineties with the sketch shows The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, Big Night Out, Bang Bang It's Reeves and Mortimer and the quiz series Shooting Stars, which ran, on and off, from 1993 to 2011.


I'm here, at a rickety table in a car park outside an auction house in Kent, to talk to Moir, who is a painter, sculptor and gentleman watercolourist. This month an exhibition of Moir's paintings will open at the Grosvenor Gallery as part of London Gallery Weekend. This is hot-off-the-brush stuff. Some of the paintings are still wet. Moir wipes a thumb along one canvas and shows me a pink streak. He has been using linseed oil sticks, which take six months to dry. His gallerist is trying to work out how to get them to London without smudging.


The exhibition is a birdwatcher's paradise. Here are neon finches, blazing firecrests and an oriole overlaid with a sort of psychedelic pointillism. If anyone thinks it's funny that a comedian should turn to art, really it's the other way around: funny that an artist should end up in comedy.

Moir, born in Leeds in 1959, cannot remember a time when he wasn't in his bedroom painting or drawing. The family - mum Audrey, dad James, Jim and younger sister Lois - moved to Darlington when Moir was five. There Audrey was "forever doing evening classes in drawing, watercolours and pottery and all that". Always setting projects, always dragging the children to galleries, stately homes and castles. The day before we meet Moir had been up in Yorkshire, taking his mother, 94, around the Beyond Bloomsbury show at York Art Gallery. I didn't have him down as a Bloomsbury man, but "everything is my sort of thing. I've got time for everything. I like Roger Fry and people like that. Virginia Woolf."


On a family camping holiday the young Jim dug some clay out of the ground and made a cup. Audrey took it to the kiln at her pottery class and had it fired. He still has it. "Me mum," he says, "was the main artistic influence." (It is "my sister", "my bedroom", "my studio", but always "me mum".)


Then there was the Darlington library where Moir pored over books on natural history and a copy of Gray's Anatomy. He liked skeletons and understanding how animals and humans fit together.

Jim Moir: "If you look at a lot of art, it's not necessarily comedy, but it's maybe strangeness".

After school he joined an apprenticeship scheme in mechanical engineering at a factory in Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham, before moving to the Polytechnic of North London and on to Middlesex Polytechnic. In 1983 Moir, 24 and with long black hair, started to attend what was then known as the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design. He loved the artist-fisherman look. "I've always worn a beret. I sometimes think I'm just pretending to look like a painter, but I've always done it." Today he is wearing a three-piece suit of pale, silvery flecked tweed. His hair and beard, also silver, aren't so much long as a mane.


The Cass wasn't an "express yourself" sort of place. "It was pretty formal. I remember once doing a life class and noticed some balloons and I went too abstract and the tutor said, 'What makes you think you've got artistic licence to do that?' And I went, 'I thought that was what we were here for?'" 

Still, discipline is no bad thing. Moir can really draw. His watercolours of tawny, barn and long-eared owls are admirably exact. Quite a lot of people - this one included - ask if they are painted from life. "I don't know if you've noticed," Moir says, "but birds don't hang around . . ." His birds are composites of photographs found online and Photoshopped together.


Reeves and Mortimer have often been likened to Morecambe and Wise, another comedy duo with a height difference. Moir says he didn't really grow up with Eric and Ernie. A greater influence was the suited and booted artistic partnership Gilbert and George. At the Cass Moir staged a homage with a friend. They wore photographic Gilbert and George masks, tied planks of wood to their feet and did a tap dance to the sound of falling cutlery. Moir's earliest appearances under the lights weren't stand-up routines, but performance pieces in a rented room above a pub.


When I put it to him that comedy and art are natural bedfellows - think Jan Steen, Hogarth and Gillray - Moir nods. "They go absolutely perfectly hand in hand. I mean, if you look at a lot of art, it's not necessarily comedy, it's maybe strangeness. If you look at early David Hockneys or Peter Blakes, there's always humour in there. Not like in-your-face, oh-look-here's-a-daft-picture humour. It's oddness, it's strangeness, it's quirkiness, which is my kind of humour anyway."


He paints with oils in a big (messy) studio at the bottom of the garden and migrates to the conservatory (spotless) to do his watercolours, which annoys his wife, Nancy. "I'm going to get another studio so that one's a dirty studio and one's a clean studio. You can't have oil paint and filth around watercolours. You need it to be clinical, almost hospital clinical. I want a nice clean sink, a clean empire."


The art world can be unfriendly to outsiders - "Yeah," Moir says with feeling - and I wonder if he has felt welcomed since his return to art after comedy. He says he was never really in the world of "showbizzy people or comedy people", and he doesn't hang around with the art crowd, either. "I don't hang about with anyone, to be honest." He likes being with his "pack": Nancy, their twins and his two children from a previous marriage. Their house is very far from a pristine "white cube". It's all William Morris wallpapers and mega florals from House of Hackney.


Moir's influences are a happy grab-bag. He's keen on Rubens, Goya, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The day before we meet The Sunday Times ran a story about works by female artists making up only 7 per cent of national museum collections. Moir starts reeling off names: "Pauline Boty. You never really see her. And Joan Mitchell. I love her." He's a fan of Barbara Hepworth and he's off to see the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.


Is he coming to London for his own private view? "Yeah, which is awful, I always think. Don't get me wrong. I love them. But it's like a wedding. Everyone's coming up to you and saying: 'Congratulations!' " To make matters worse, Moir is deaf in one ear; a benign, noncancerous tumour split a nerve. "So if I'm in a room full of people talking it just sounds like a blender mixing a load of biscuits."


Our chat in the sun is accompanied by birdsong, broken only by the thunder of the trains towards Ashford International. Moir is a serious birdwatcher, often to be found out on Dungeness or waging war on the squirrels back home. "If you're a birdwatcher you're always birdwatching. You don't go out to do it, you're just doing it all the time. I think the way I've been brought up is just to look, to look at things nonstop, to always examine things."


Filming The Prince's Master Crafters: The Next Generation for Sky Arts, Moir bonded with the Prince of Wales over birds. "I noticed some nuthatches and he went, '[he adopts a posh voice] Mmmm, mmmm, yah.' He was really nice and normal." In the seven-part series Moir and the prince supervise six young craftspeople as they learn heritage skills such as stone carving, blacksmithing, stained glass-making and pargeting (ornamental plasterwork).


If, I ask tentatively, you were given the opportunity to be Sir Jim Moir, would you go for it? There is no hesitation. "Yeah! Can't see why I'd turn it down." After all, "me mum would like it".

See Them Richards? New Work by Jim Moir is at Grosvenor Gallery, London SW1 (grosvenorgallery.com), May 14-28; London Gallery Weekend (londongalleryweekend.art), May 13-15. The Prince's Master Crafters: Next Generation is on Sky Arts, May 18

May 7, 2022