Portrait of a boy as an artist
Kieron Williamson was five when he first wanted to paint. Now the 12-year-old is a millionaire
Kieron Williamson is standing in a busy gallery, explaining Ducks Crossing, a beautiful oil painting in his latest exhibition. "These beech trees go an absolutely gorgeous orangey yellow in the autumn," the artist says of the landscape scene of Norfolk, east England. "The road there is always wet and there's this lovely purple and orange light. It's just phenomenal."
Kieron is wearing shorts and a T-shirt with the word "Goooal!" and has just turned 12. He is a perfectly ordinary boy - he loves being outdoors, playing football and riding his bike fast - but his talent for painting has made his family's life rather extraordinary.
The boy the British tabloids call Mini Monet has just sold out his latest exhibition of 40 paintings, raising more than £400,000 (HK$5.13 million); he is already a millionaire. A mailing list of 10,000 people crave a Williamson and buyers from New Zealand, Indonesia and Germany have visited his exhibition.
I first interviewed Kieron in 2009 when he was a sweetly monosyllabic seven-year-old and the family lived in a cramped two-bed flat overlooking a petrol station in Holt. I met Kieron again in 2011 when proceeds from his painting had enabled him to buy his family a house in a village on the Norfolk Broads, the watery landscape he loves best.
Unfortunately, his growing celebrity led to what his mother, Michelle, jokingly calls "stalkers" turning up at weekends expecting an audience with the boy wonder, so they moved again, to a converted stable in a quieter village.
Today, Kieron talks fluently and modestly about his art. But he's still a boy, with a big plaster on his elbow from where he skidded over on his bike on their gravel drive. "We have quite a few accidents," Michelle says. "Genetics," Kieron murmurs.
His paintings have also changed. The pastels have been supplanted by mature, moody oils of figures in the landscape, influenced by Alfred Munnings and the Newlyn School, and Kieron uses a palette knife and smart techniques such as scoring winter branches with a cocktail stick on his oils.
He paints mostly scenes from rural Norfolk and Cornwall, in southwest England, where Kieron first asked to draw, out of the blue, aged five, on a family holiday. He has a profound attachment to the countryside and, in many ways, is a delightfully old-fashioned country boy: he loves cycling along the lanes, he'd like to have an air rifle, and he adores cart horses, cows and foxes (although he does have a painting titled Hong Kong).
Most of all, though, he paints. Kieron often rushes outside to watch a sunset in his pyjamas or begs his dad, Keith, and Michelle to take him to streams, churches or field edges he has spotted from the car and taken a fancy to. His face lights up when he describes taking photos after a storm recently and seeing a fox. "The whole sky glowed yellow and there was a rainbow and you could see both ends of it. Then I saw two deer running out of a field and a fox came out after them."
Last summer, shortly before Kieron finished primary school, a canteen worker said to Michelle: "He's always looking at the sky." Kieron was desperate to get outdoors at break; he'd play football but also gaze at skeins of geese flying over. So his parents made a big decision: take him out of the school system and educate him at home.
"We've obviously got our own fears and apprehension about high school," says Michelle, "but because he's so good at being self-sufficient at his art work and his study, we didn't think home education would be too much of a problem and it suits him down to the ground."
Sister Billie Jo, who is 10, was happy to continue at school - "she's a social bunny," says Michelle - but then "she saw what Kieron was getting up to" and wanted to be home-schooled as well.
Kieron loves chatting to his retired neighbours about old village life and has struck up friendships with painters David Curtis, Trevor Chamberlain and Bert Wright, who give him advice and support. Does he miss anything about school? "Sometimes I miss having laughs when I'm supposed to be concentrating or making a joke about what somebody's done, but home schooling is really good."
Michelle is the director of Kieron's company, which was set up in 2010, helped by a specialist children's solicitor and accountant who will ensure his fortune is held in trust for when he comes of age. Keith, formerly an art dealer, now buys and sells art for Kieron's company, and Kieron has an impressive collection, including more than 20 paintings by his hero, Edward Seago. Do they argue over what to buy? They look at each other and smile. "Dad likes a wider range than me," Kieron says diplomatically.
Anyone who talks to Kieron can see that he paints because he wants to, and needs to. Does he feel under pressure to paint? "Never," he says. "There's no pressure at all." But he is aware that he is a provider for his family and this can make him seem old beyond his years.
"I'd really like to put a snug upstairs," he says when he shows me his studio, pointing to the storeroom above it. "When we were looking for a house, Dad really wanted a snug and I'd really like a snug as somewhere for him to chill out."
As well as painting almost every day, Kieron is writing a gothic horror novel set in 1818, inspired by Chris Priestley's Mister Creecher.
The young artist also wants to buy some land in order to keep a small herd of cows that he can paint - Charolais are a particular favourite. I assume this is a fantasy but Keith and Michelle later reveal that they are seriously talking to farmers about how to go about it.
"I'd love to paint cattle when they are standing in a stream but I haven't been lucky enough to see them yet," says Kieron.
"This is our normal," his mother says with a smile. "It may not be anyone else's normal, but it feels right for us."
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