Back when he played as Vic Reeves, a bit of hubris was part of the joke. The comedian would bill himself as “Britain’s finest light performer”, which nailed his act perfectly: a mix of faded variety show glamor and thin-skinned pomposity (with a dose of surrealism too). But nowadays, the man known to his friends as Jim Moir – he plans to retire his alter ego next year – could genuinely give himself a headliner without the slightest bit of irony. Because Moir has become one of the country’s most prolific painters. This week he will open an exhibition at the RedHouse Originals gallery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, his fifth of the year so far after exhibitions in Jersey, Penzance, Northampton and London.
Sitting in his studio at his home in Kent, painting, as he does almost every day shortly after waking up, Moir says he feels “wonderful”. He has a rule that he only ever paints when he’s in the mood, so he doesn’t force it. Luckily for him, he’s in the mood 90% of the time, churning out “thousands” of paintings a year.
“Painting is what I always wanted to do,” he says. “Even during the Vic and Bob shows, the art was always there, even when it might have seemed to be in the background. Now, however, I can sit in my studio all day, with my own schedule.
The new show is called Yorkshire Rocks & Dinghy Fights and features “around 57” paintings, each unmistakably moirish, with threads of the Dadaist surrealism it is known for alongside more realistic works. There are David Bowie’s boots – recognizable by the shiny red, almost knee-high platforms made for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour – alongside the birds, the geology of the North and the people who get rid of the boats.
“My son [Louis] makes movies, and he made a movie about people doing comedy and art. A few years ago he said I should go to Brimham Rocks and he would film me painting something, so I did.
The 180-hectare site in North Yorkshire is controlled by the National Trust and is known for its weather-eroded rocks reminiscent of sculptures by Henry Moore. It’s easy to imagine Moir’s Brimham Rocks 2 as the cover of a ’70s progressive album (the pink and blue palette isn’t a million miles from King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King), while the face depicted in Brimham Rocks (Yellow) is a ringtone for Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft.
“That’s exactly what I thought,” says Moir, “but if you go, that’s what it looks like. I wasn’t trying to force it, it’s just what it looks like. Everyone should go to Brimham Rocks, you will have things coming out of the deep channels of your mind.
The titular drifter fights, meanwhile, were inspired by a 1963 British film whose name he can’t remember (“not even a B-movie”) – but it did pack a fantastic punch.
“It got me thinking: Where’s the most ridiculous place you can get a punch? Probably on a dinghy. So it’s all as simple as that, really. But it’s not just the fights : there are also kidnappings”, he says proudly.
This is the first time that Moir, born in Leeds in 1959, has exhibited his work in his native county. “I have a very good feeling with this one. I do not know why. But I know how the people of Yorkshire are, and it will be less pretentious than in a London gallery. When Bob and I used to tour, the audiences in Manchester, York and Leeds were always better. Maybe that’s what I’m basing it on. »
With the exhibition almost ready to go and a book of bird paintings now published, Moir has turned his attention to his next project, a Sky Arts series which will see him painting more of his feathered friends. Then, with his wife Nancy, he will travel across the country to see the birds in their natural habitat.
The series will feature time-lapse footage of Moir working on his beloved bird paintings, something he doesn’t much like – “your mind tells you you’re going to paint badly and it’s tempting to listen” – but learns to overcome. Plus, if it means he has to travel across the country with his wife, paint, he’ll put up with it.
“If I could tell 25-year-old Vic that he was doing a show like this, he’d be like, ‘Oh, finally!’ When I was 25, my party thing was to get a bird book from Collins, tell someone to open it to any page and I’d tell them what the birds were and all the facts,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been a surprise for all of this to happen, but I would have loved to hear it.”
Moir has been birdwatching since he was little, but says he moved away from country pursuits in the middle years in favor of pubs. “If anything, the comedy was a distraction.”
As his comedy partner Bob Mortimer returns to the BBC for another series of Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing and Moir embark on his birdwatching adventures, it’s heartwarming to see two 90s alternative comedy icons turn into gentler activities. Moir doesn’t think his art show will become as popular as Mortimer’s fishing show (which he loves), but he’s not against the idea.
“Bill Oddie told me a long time ago that if the enthusiasm is evident, you can watch anyone do anything, no matter how much you yourself know about a subject,” he says. “There’s a lot of insincerity these days, so it’s refreshing to see some enthusiasm.”
Maybe he and Mortimer could team up for a fishing and birding show?
“I think fishing used to be the biggest pastime in Britain, but since the lockdown it’s been birdwatching,” he says. “Between us, we cover both bases. I’m drawing a line under philately, but if someone has enough enthusiasm, who knows, it could be great! There must be actors who like timbres, they just have to admit it.
Yorkshire Rocks & Dinghy Fights open September 22 at RedHouse Originals in Harrogate.