Mike Francis Lifestory

Childhood - Born 9th May 1938

Born into a life of creative ‘print’ Mike was the son of Harold and Minnie.  Harold, after spending a career in the army, returned to take up life as a an ‘inspector of type’ for one of London’s most prestigious print companies. Mike always said that he got his eye for detail from his dad. Harold was away for 4/5 years fighting in Burma in and Mike  didn’t see much of his father in his formative years. As a result he learned to amuse himself and he began drawing at home as a way of expression and to use his imagination.  By the age of 7 he had created his first ‘real’ drawings – the first being a portrait of Black Beauty that hung proudly on Minnie’s wall.  It was clear from such an early age he was very talented at drawing. During this time he was evacuated to the Cornwall coast along with his cousins for 2 years and he continued to sketch and record what was around him.  This love of Cornwall would stay with him all his life.  He lived a happy childhood, and was proud to be considered working class.

Mike was an only child, which was why he was big on his extended family from Pimlico, and Cornwall. He recalled with affection both sides of his family, and would regularly spend time with all of his relations. Being an only child seemed to fuel his imagination and artistic view on life.

1951 Aged 13

1951 Aged 13

He excelled at School sports; football and cricket, trialling for Surrey county Cricket at the Oval. His grandad and Uncle Jim Francis (who played for Sussex) taught him how to bowl spin. Mike played good level of both and his love of sport provided a necessary antidote to his creative pursuits throughout his life.

Like a lot of kids in the 1950s Mike left school at 14/15 to pursue work and he became a runner at Rome studios in Denman St Soho on the advice of his art teacher at school to pursue an apprenticeship within an art / illustration studio. His Dad, Harold was pleased he was pursuing ‘proper work’. Even at this tender age he would travel every day on the train up to London, not something that would be easily encouraged in these modern times. He spent 3 and half yrs making tea and assisting with illustration tasks for the established artists and would come home and practice every night on his illustration technique for 3/4 hours – he didn’t need any motivation to want to improve. It was clear he wanted to be the best he could be.

1st Show 1953

At the age of 15 Mike had his first One Man Show. Imagine that! 15 and he was showing work all on his own merit. The show took place at the Furneaux gallery In Wimbledon and comprised mostly of Mike’s oil and ink landscapes and scenes of London. He even sold a few!

1951 Aged 17

1st Job 1952 / 3

Soho in 1952/3 was a wild place and he got a taste for being in the coolest, hippest part of London. Soho had a reputation as we all know and Mike experienced it all 1st hand. The first jazz clubs and coffee bars, the strip joints and the drinking dens as well as how the various immigrant populations who settled in the area, helped create a truly international mix of music, food and drink as well as creating an atmosphere where even the seedy side of life seemed to enhance the magic of the area. The area was filled with struggling artists, up and coming singers and songwriters and itinerant musicians, as well as the area's dodgy "entrepreneurs" engaging in some very dubious activities in the famous red light district! Without knowing, Mike was becoming part of the "Soho crowd" in the 1950's and must have been very intoxicating in those austere times. He would spend time soaking up the characters and ambience of Soho, especially the ‘jazz’ scene and his 1st introduction to Chet Baker and the now famous Ronnie Scotts, located in Gerard Street. Mike could often be seen convincing the doorman to allow him in for the twilight shows – free of charge. He was exercising his charm and wit from an early age.

1956 Age 18

He gained a reputation as a willing learner and Miss Rome had a real affection for Mike. She was a unique character of Russian / Jewish descent with a style all of her own. She had built Rome Studios in to one of London’s finest illustrators and some of the capital’s finest retouchers, letterers and photographers worked in the studio. It was a real baptism of fire for Mike as he was interviewed for the post by the ‘Military Man’ Mr Warner in the afternoon and started work within the hour!

Mike’s Cartoons of Annie Rome and ‘Military Man’ Mr Warner

National Service 1956 – 1959

In 1956 he went into the National Service and served almost 3 yrs. It was only supposed to be 2 but he got into a few spots of bother which extended his time. He worked in the Merchant Shop as he was identified as talented due to his drawing abilities. The Merchant Shop was full of some of the most skilled trades people Mike ever met. He always said that’s where he learnt the skills of mixing paint, working with different media's and materials, an apprenticeship that money couldn’t buy, and he became the Barracks sign writer, responsible for creating some memorable signage, including figurative references alongside the type setts. All the lads called him Picasso.

He enjoyed the Army as he thought it gave him discipline, respect for team ethics and the importance of camaraderie. You could always tell Mike had been in a team– he was always selfless and was willing to go the extra mile for others – a value that most men shared who had the same experiences. There were a few misdemeanours though - one of his punishments was to work in the kitchens...opening thousands of tinned tomatoes everyday….. He never ate a tinned tomato ever again.

Return to Rome Studios 1959

When he came out in 1958/9 he was pressured into going to Art School at St Martins – which was very prestigious...but he lasted less than two weeks. He believed they couldn't teach him anything and he thought it was a bit ‘poncey’ (they were just playing at art!) and went back to Rome Studios where his illustration career began. This is where he was given his ‘illustrative’ license, but it involved extreme hard work, working to very tight deadlines. The studios had a very good name and he worked with a very talented team of illustrators, retouchers etc. He picked up the Soho vibe seamlessly again, regularly vising the Italian Cafes and European Delis.

He would regularly walk the streets of Soho, looking for photographic references with his old Hasselblad camera – some of these photos would resurface periodically throughout his paintings – the characters and street scenes providing an anchor for his realistic perspective and adding something intimate and personal to his narrative building of artworks.

In 1959 – he met Caroline in Soho when she was just 16 and they courted for the next 4 years experiencing Soho together, taking visits to Montmarte in Paris – heady days indeed.

Mike and Carol Married in 1963.

1966 Louise was born in St Georges in Tooting and in 1967 Mike and Carol move from Colliers Wood and the familiarity of close family to buy a house in Sidcup with a dodgy ref from Madame Rome! Back in those days you had to prove that you could earn in a week what you would pay in a month and Madame Rome lied – without giving Mike the raise!  His acumen, skill and credibility had risen during this period of his illustrative career and he was always motivated to paint / create for himself.  He was beginning to do more and more of his own now trade mark paintings in the evenings at home – fusing his illustrative skill of composition with a freedom to experiment with narrative themes – mostly based on his suburban surroundings.  However, these were just ‘muses’ at this point.

1968 Joe was born.

Illustrators London – Hatton Garden 1968-1974

Mike then left Rome to set up in Hatton Garden with Ivan Rose and they created Illustrators London. Here began a lifelong friendship with Ivan – Mike revered Ivan’s ability and took his illustrative skills to the next level. Ivan was a giant of a man, suave and comedic and the both of them together created a fantastically creative environment to work in. They would continuously wind each other up and play practical jokes on all of the staff. To let off steam they would play ping pong – and it was super competitive! They both worked hard and Illustrators London became one of the most respected studios in the industry. After long hours Mike would still come home and paint in the evening...he was developing his own artistic confidence and loose sketches were becoming more refined.

1969 Mike at Hatton Garden Studios age 31


Mike wins the National Portrait Gallery’s 150th Anniversary Poster Competition 1974

Mike’s life took a huge turn in 1974 when he won the National Portrait Gallery’s 150 yr anniversary Poster competition – the only contemporary winner in its long history.

Original Poster 1974 aged 36


The Treadwell Years 1974 – 1989

Later that year he joined the Nicolas Treadwell Gallery. Nick was an ‘art entrepreneur‘ and a real risk taker and established an eclectic group of artists from all over the UK and Europe. At this time Mike set up his Studio at the bottom of the garden in Sidcup and began to produce his own works. It was a huge risk, but Mike was finally allowing himself to think creatively and produce work in his now renowned style. The Gallery garnered lots of press attention and showed all over Europe. This is where Dad met Eric Scott, the mirror image of Mike – a cutting sense of humour and a mesmeric painter of immense talent. Mike and Eric would become friends for life, culminating in the setting up of Eric’s solo Galerie des Arts in 1999 in Les Adrets de L’Esterel where Eric lived for over 15 yrs. At times with Treadwell, Mike would have really hot streeks of selling his work, but there were also tough times when the Gallery would go through lean spells. This could cause stress and make thinking creatively all more difficult. The Gallery had began a movement entitled ‘Superhumanism’, loosely based on the American movement of Realism and Mike’s work was based upon capturing themes enveloped by his surroundings of ‘suburbia’. The work he produced in this time are held by collectors from all over the world.

1980/81 Show with Treadwell Catalogue age 42

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Various Catalogue Covers from shows with Treadwell 1978-85

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Mike’s Profile Picture in the Superhumanism Book 1980 Mike’s Painting – Studying the Form – 1979


Mike’s Profile Picture in Superhumanism 2 Book 1982

S.O.S Oil and Acrylic on Board 120 x 90cm 1980

During this time he had split from Carol and met his partner Barabara, herself a talented artist. This was a very tough time personally for Mike and the Francis family, but Carol and Mike remained firm friends until his death. Mike and Barbara would remain together for the next 42 years setting up their respective ‘studios’ at their home in New Eltham. Mike would often use Barabara as a source of inspiration in many paintings and they enjoyed a happy life together, full of laughter and love. He became a popular figure in New Eltham – visiting the betting shop at least 3 times a day as a release, building his accumulators and sharing banter with the betting shop regulars. He loved the realism he got from all of those assorted characters as it sat well with his observations on life and his working class roots.

Paintings: High Roller 1996 & An Evening In 1987 (featuring Barbara as a source)

As Mike entered the late 1980s, Treadwell had relocated to eastern Europe and the work began to dry up. This was a tough time for Mike. He could still secure commission based work, but he needed an avenue for his artistic paintings. In this time, he produced works for the Lords Taverners – 50 Greatest Post War Cricketers and 50 Greatest Post War Golfers with high profile shows at the Café Royal attended by all of the Authors of the books and an assortment of the stars who had been captured.

The Lord’s Taverners 50 Greatest Cricketers Front Cover

Portrait of Sir Garfield Sobers Acrylic on Canvas 120 x 90 cm

The Lords Taverners 50 Greatest Golfers Cover

Portrait of Arnold Palmer Acrylic on canvas 120 x 90cm

He continued to still produce his own work, with no real place to show them – these were really tough times for Mike where he considered his artistic resilience, proving to himself that in order to continue he had to suffer for his art. He featured in a book entitled British Film Posters in 1998, reviewing his commercial art studio days – Mike produced over 60 film posters, most notably for The Terminator in 1984.

British Film Posters Book Cover 1998

The Terminator Film Poster 1984 (Original Acrylic on Canvas 120 x 90cm)

Whitford Fine Art Years 1998 – 2006

This all changed when Adrian Mibas from Whitford Fine Art in Jermyn St offered Mike a show in 1996. It was like being thrown a lifeline and it gave him a new focus and vigour. His inaugural show in 1997 featured new work – he had been developing both narrative ideas and refining his technique to incorporate a more vivid finish to his paintings, experimenting with familiar characters in new settings. He painted his first version of ‘Spot the Dog’ which was to become a seminal piece that signified his more hyper realist style.

Spot the Dog 1 1997


Throughout the next 7 years Mike produced over 150 works and sold an extensive number of paintings. This was Mike’s ‘rebirth’. His shows allowed Mike to work towards ‘collections’ and his work developed his newly rediscovered ‘narrative’ and ‘dreamlike’ approach, using sources from a life lived through London, Cornwall, family and his own dreams.

Messums, Panter and Hall and Plus One Galleries 2007-2014

It was one of his most prolific periods which continued with collaborations with Messums Gallery in 2007-9, Panter and Hall in 2010 and Plus One Gallery in Chelsea from 2011 to 2014.

Private View Invitations for Messums and Plus One Galleries 2007 and 2010

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Through all of this he had partnered with his best mate Eric Scott from 1999 to sell work from the Galerie des Arts in Les Adrets de L’Esterel in the South of France, close to Cannes. Eric had moved to the small French Village 10 years before and established himself as a significant artistic character, painting as prolifically as ever. Eric was like a brother to Mike from their days together at Treadwell’s and they employed Joe to run the the Galerie. These were the happiest of all times as Eric and Mike ‘competed’ and pushed each other to new artistic heights. Over a 4 year period they both sold lots of paintings and showed in London and Los Angeles and Miami. With special nights and shows at the Galerie, both Eric And Mike became interwoven into the French Village Culture. Both used characters from the Village, namely the Restauranteurs and hunters as sources for paintings.

Paintings from Les Adrets; Alain’s Window Box 2001


Chez Pierre’s Siesta 2001


Many exotic nights were spent in the hilltop village at Alain and Giselle’s Bar Esterel and Chez Pierre’s Relais hotel and bar. It seemed as though this sleepy Provence village had a life of it’s own at this time -commanded by Eric, Beau, Joe and Mike. To say that Les Adrets became an artistic place was an understatement. They became Kings of the Mountain.

The Galerie des Arts in Les Adrets


Mike and Eric at a Vernissage 2000


Mike continued to show his work and Plus One Gallery still holds some of his seminal works that are still available today. In his lifetime, he produced over 5000 paintings – for each finished work, he would do numerous sketches and mock watercolours that are works of worth in their own right.

Pencil and Watercolour Sketches for Caribbean and Nightswimming 2007

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Right up until his recent health issues, Mike continued to paint everyday, playing music whilst he got into the ‘zone’ - often this was in the twilight hours where he could fully concentrate, free from the distractions of the day. Mike’s dedication to his craft never waned – it’s who he was and what formed his identity. If only all his mates from the betting shop really understood what the nickname ‘Mick the Painter’ really meant eh!

Extra Curricular

Throughout all of this life, Mike was a passionate and loyal supporter of Chelsea Football Club. With his family roots based in Pimlico, the whole of his extended family on his father Harold’s side were all Chelsea devotees. All of the family would watch Chelsea and this went back to the birth of the club in 1905! It was his local club, and he 1st visited Stamford Bridge with his dad in the 1950s, standing on the Shed End and experienced the glory days of the late 1960s citing Charlie Cook and Peter Osgood as his heroes. The legacy continued albeit through some bleak times for the club, when he took his son Joe to his 1st game aged 4 in 1972. If only he knew it would take 3 years for Joe to witness a home win! The ritual of travelling up to Stamford Bridge through London by car was a chance to teach Joe about the geography of London, and this continued all through Joe’s childhood until he was ready to ‘go it alone’ aged 15. They both continued to support the club and made their last visit together as recent as 2017. This legacy has been passed on to his two grandsons and granddaughter – Louis, George and Lily, who all love to go to Stamford Bridge as much as their grandad.

Mike with Louis Shed End 2007


Mike with Super Frank Shed End 2009


His other passion was to watch his son Joe’s playing and coaching career, ending up as one of Cray Wanderer’s most loyal supporters over a 20 yr period. He was a respected character on the terraces and would brighten any Saturday afternoon with tales of his life shared with the ‘Cray Massive’. He was a ‘Wanderer’ for life!

Mike’s other spiritual home has always been Cornwall, where his mum Minnie’s family hailed from. He spent many childhood holidays in the county and had a real connection with the geography, heritage and culture of the Cornish. This continued all throughout his life with Mike and Barabara making an annual pilgrimage back to the ‘homestead’ to sample cream teas and his love for the pastie.

To say that Mike loved music is understatement. A keen practitioner of the acoustic guitar throughout his life, he worked to his own soundtrack. From the days of beatnik jazz in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he developed a taste for all styles and genres. John Martyn, JJ Cale, Chris Rea, Eric Clapton often accompanied him in the studio. He would play his music LOUD too….often upsetting the neighbours. He was always open to new artists too, enjoying a spell listening to ambient house!

Mike lived a full life. A rich life. A hard life. Hard, because being creative involves courage, daring, self confidence and taking risks. He backed himself. When he went freelance, it was huge risk, leaving a stable wage with a family to support and a mortgage to pay for. His dad, Harold was incredulous when he made this leap of faith – but Mike had faith in his ability as an artist. He looked and thought about life in a different way – the seed was sewn as a young boy, growing up essentially on his own (not alone) where his imagination was his best friend and he turned to drawing and imagery as a way of expressing himself. He was always most comfortable when working in his studio late at night, with the music on and a brush in his hand – he enjoyed being ‘himself’ free from any distractions to immerse himself in his art, formulating ideas for new paintings and realising them. One could say, that in this regard, he succeeded. He leaves a legacy through his sold artworks that have travelled the world and as a result of this, although he has passed away, he still lives.

Mike working in his studio in New Eltham 2006


Mike with his painting Dance of Life 2009