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Artist Henry Fraser - a triumph of the spirit

PUBLISHED: 13:12 17 July 2016 | UPDATED: 18:52 18 July 2016

Chris Hoy (Henry Fraser)

Chris Hoy (Henry Fraser)

henry fraser

Henry Fraser started drawing and painting seriously 18 months ago and will have his first public exhibition this month. But unlike most artists he is paralysed and creates his works using a paintbrush held in his mouth. Sandra Deeble met the inspiring young man at his Chipperfield home

Henry painting Harry Potter, which inspired JK Rowling to come to an exhibition at his old schoolHenry painting Harry Potter, which inspired JK Rowling to come to an exhibition at his old school

‘There’s no harm in trying,’ says Henry Fraser. ‘I always used to turn down opportunities before the accident. Now I’ll always try things. If it doesn’t work, it’s fine. As long as I can say I’ve tried it.’

Trying things has become second nature to Fraser after an accident in 2009 changed his life. Everyone should read his full account on his website henryfraser.org – it is compelling, moving and full of hope. Written in four parts, Fraser describes being on holiday in Portugal with friends to celebrate finishing their AS exams when he was 17. Running into the surf and diving into the sea as he had always done, he banged his head on the sea bed, and found himself floating face down in the water, unable to feel anything from his shoulders down, although he was still able to talk. He was airlifted to hospital in Lisbon, then later transferred to Stoke Mandeville. Almost dying several times, contracting MRSA, and undergoing months of brutal procedures, Fraser’s life was saved but he was paralysed from the shoulders down.

Full of fight however, he began to set himself challenges and ultimately defied medical convention that prescribed a future using a head-controlled electric wheelchair. Fraser was clear about what he wanted – to be able to push himself in his own wheelchair. With support from family and friends and one physiotherapist in particular who listened to his wishes and helped to make them happen through exhausting physical training, he succeeded.

Since 2014, Fraser has been frequently invited to give motivational talks to sports and business people. The name of his talk is Pushing Myself.

Lion by Henry FraserLion by Henry Fraser

‘Something I’ve hated my entire life is being up in front of people talking. That’s why I enjoy it; it’s so out of my comfort zone. Every time I finish a talk, I feel a bit of a buzz.’

In January last year, an illness meant that Fraser was bed-bound. When boredom kicked in, he found a drawing app on his iPad. Holding a stylus in his mouth, he did his first drawing – Jonny Wilkinson’s game-winning drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.

As soon as he was able to get in his chair, Fraser started drawing with a pencil attached to a mouth-stick. A year ago, he started painting with watercolours.

With phenomenal speed, Fraser has created a collection of 46 drawings and paintings that will form an exhibition at the Grove Hotel in Chandler’s Cross on July 9. He will be selling limited prints on the day, with orders going through his new art website, launching at the same time.

Didier Drogba by Henry FraserDidier Drogba by Henry Fraser

‘It’s been a very surreal and very fast 12 months, really,’ says Fraser. ‘I’ve had quite a few commissions. The very first one was an iPad drawing of Audrey Hepburn. That’s been the most popular one that I’ve ever done.’

Thanks to social media, Fraser gets direct feedback from people he has drawn or painted. This has led to conversations with author JK Rowling on Twitter after he did a drawing of Harry Potter. And when teachers from his former school, Dulwich College, approached him to host a private view of some of his work last year, Fraser sent Rowling an invitation.

‘It was more out of hope than expectation,’ says Fraser. ‘But she replied straightaway and said she’d love to come.’

As Fraser describes it, ‘One thing happens after the other’. This includes meeting David Beckham, being commissioned by The Times to do a piece for the front cover of its 2016 Rugby World Cup supplement, and winning the Rugby Player’s Association Blyth Spirit Award in May this year.

A former winner of the award is Matt Hampson, someone who has inspired Fraser and for whose foundation Fraser has also become an ambassador.

‘He has a much higher injury level than me and he’s permanently ventilated. It just shows that there is life after spinal injury. You can just live and get on with things.’

With a love of sport, Fraser continued from his Wilkinson depiction to draw and paint many sports stars including Thierry Henry (whom he has also met), Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Didier Drogba, Andy Murray and Bobby Moore.

Fraser does a mixture of pencil portraits and watercolour paintings. He is utterly modest. When I ask him about his style of painting, he takes some time to think before answering.

‘I think I can capture emotion and movement quite well. I really bring the feeling out.’

To date, Fraser’s favourite painting is one of a roaring lion. ‘The ones I like best came together very quickly,’ he says

Another one he likes is his portrait of Walter White , the mild-mannered teacher-turned-drug dealer in the TV hit Breaking Bad.

‘It took me three hours and I think it was one of the best ones I’ve done. It just came together.’

He has set up his studio at the family dining-room table with a customised easel that a friend made for him. Resting his arms on cushions, he has a towel on top to dry the brush.

Fraser’s interest in art may have stemmed from childhood. He used to watch his dad, who has his own design agency in Bourne End, sketching. His mum Francesca loves colour and designs under her CrushCube label – her statement footstools and cushions are in the family home.

Fraser also credits his mother with his love of sport, thanks to a no-nonsense approach: ‘When we were young, mum would kick us out in the garden rather than let us watch TV.’

Fraser and his three brothers, Tom, Will and Dom, would play ‘two-on two’ rugby in the garden. All the brothers loved sport and Will now plays flanker for Saracens Rugby Club. When I meet Fraser, it is the day before the north London club’s Premiership final against Exeter at Twickenham, a match which leads to celebration for the Fraser family.

When I ask him whether he has time to think about what he would like to do next, he says that rather than planning he prefers to stay open to new opportunities.

‘It was always scary taking opportunities in case I failed. Now I’ve realised that life’s too short to think that way. You don’t want to look back and think, “I wish I’d done that”.’

Henry Fraser’s Hand to Mouth exhibition was held on Saturday July 9 at the Grove Hotel, Chandler’s Cross

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