Back when he acted as Vic Reeves a bit of hubris was part of the joke. The comedian would bill himself as “Britain’s best light entertainer”, which amped up his act perfectly: a mix of faded variety show glamor and thin-skinned pomposity (with a dose of surrealism too). But these days the man known to friends as Jim Moir – he plans to retire his alter ego next year – can truly give himself top billing without a hint of irony. Because Moir became one of the country’s most prolific painters. This week he opens an exhibition at the RedHouse Originals gallery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, his fifth of the year so far after shows in Jersey, Penzance, Northampton and London.
Sitting in his studio at home in Kent painting, as he does almost every day soon after waking up, Moir says he feels “amazing”. He has a rule that he only ever paints when he is in the mood, not to force it. Fortunately for him, he is in the mood 90% of the time and produces “thousands” of paintings a year.
“Painting is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “Even when you were doing Vic and Bob shows, the art was always there, even when it might have seemed like it was 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 for which he is known, alongside more realistic works. There are David Bowie’s boots – recognizable as the bright red, almost knee-high platforms made for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour – along with birds, northern geology and people scraping on boats.
“My son [Louis] directs films, and he did a film 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-acre site in North Yorkshire is managed by the National Trust and is known for its weather-eroded rocks reminiscent of Henry Moore sculptures. It’s easy to imagine Moir’s Brimham Rocks 2 as the cover of a 70s prog album (the pink and blue palette isn’t a million miles from In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson), while the face is depicted in Brimham Rocks (Yellow). ) is a ringer for Stay Puft from Ghostbusters.
“That’s exactly what I thought,” says Moir, “but when you go there, that’s what it looks like. I didn’t try to force it, it’s just how it looks. Everyone should go to Brimham Rocks, things will come up from the deep channels of your mind.”
The titular dinghy fights, meanwhile, were inspired by a 1963 British film whose name he can’t remember (“not even a B-movie”) – but it packed a fantastic punch-up.
“It got me thinking: where’s the most ridiculous place you can have a punch-up? Probably on a dinghy. So it really is all as simple as that. But it’s not just battles: there are also kidnappings,” he says proudly.
This is the first time that Moir, who was born in Leeds in 1959, has shown his work in his native country. “I have a really good feeling about this one. I do not know why. But I know how people are in Yorkshire, and it will be less snooty than you can find in a London gallery. When Bob and I toured, 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 released, Moir has turned his attention to his next project, a Sky Arts series which will see him paint more of his feathered friends. Then he will travel the country with his wife Nancy 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’s not too keen on – “your mind keeps telling you you’re going to paint badly and it’s tempting to listen” – but learn to overcome. Plus, if it means he can travel the country and paint with his wife, he’ll stick it out.
“If I could have told 25-year-old Vic that he was doing a show like this, he would have said, ‘Oh, finally!’ When I was 25, my party trick was to get a Collins bird book, 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 that all of this would happen, but I would like to hear it.”
Moir has been watching since he was a small child, but says he moved away from country pursuits in favor of pubs in middle age. “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 embarks on his birdwatching adventures, it’s heartening to see two icons of 90s alternative comedy grow into more gentle pursuits. 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 clear, you can watch anyone do anything, no matter how much you know about a subject yourself,” he says. “There’s a lot of insincerity these days, so it’s refreshing to see enthusiasm.”
Maybe he and Mortimer could team up for a fishing and birding spectacle?
“I think fishing used to be the top hobby in Britain, but since lockdown it’s been bird watching,” he says. “Between us, we cover both bases. I draw the line at stamp collecting, but then if someone has the right amount of enthusiasm, who knows, it might be brilliant! There must be comedians with a love for stamps – we just need to get them to admit it.”
Yorkshire Rocks & Dinghy Fights opens on September 22 at RedHouse Originals in Harrogate.