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Painter of the living world - conservationist and wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 June 2017

Pollyanna with the subject of one of her paintings

Pollyanna with the subject of one of her paintings

as submitted artist's

The inspiring conservationist and wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering has travelled the world in pursuit of her ideals. Mike Smith visits her at home in Oker, near Matlock

Accompanied by her daughter and business partner Anna-Louise, the celebrated wildlife artist and conservationist Pollyanna Pickering has travelled the world throughout the last two decades in pursuit of the rare and endangered species that feature in so many of her pictures. These visits are organised by Anna-Louise, who provides the text and the photographs which complement her mother’s stunning artwork in a series of books that chronicle their expeditions to some of the most remote and inhospitable locations on the planet.

Not content with illustrating and describing the animals they encounter during their travels, Pollyanna and Anna-Louise invariably become involved in a very hands-on way with efforts to protect rare species and their natural habitats. In addition, the Pollyanna Pickering Foundation raises funds for a wide range of international rescue and conservation projects.

When I went to meet this remarkable mother and daughter team at Pollyanna’s home at Oker, in one of Derbyshire’s most bucolic landscapes, I was keen to discover the secrets of their success. Taking me back to her school days at Rotherham Grammar School, Pollyanna said: ‘Although I was interested in the science subjects that the school was always keen to foster, my greater passion was for art. When I declared that I wanted to apply for art college, the headteacher summoned me to her office. After looking through my portfolio, she slammed it shut and said I would never make a living from my pictures. Fortunately, my parents were more supportive and I duly left school to take up a place at Rotherham School of Art, followed by studies at the Central London School of Art.’

I was surprised to learn that Pollyanna did not make any paintings of animals when she was a student, but she did gain skills that would serve her well as a wildlife artist. She said, ‘I was inspired at Rotherham by Leon Harris, a brilliant teacher who threatened to expel any student who tried to produce pictures copied from photographs. I also gained an understanding of anatomy through life-drawing classes in London, where the models included members of the Royal Ballet, whom we had to depict whilst they were in motion – a skill that would become essential for sketching animals in the wild.’

March of the MightyMarch of the Mighty

Whilst she was at college in Rotherham, Pollyanna met Ken Pickering, who became her husband and provided her with the alliterative name that is even more memorable than her maiden name of Pollyanna Pollard. After leaving college, she worked as a teacher for three years, but left teaching to become a freelance artist after being badly injured in a car crash in 1969. Ken became a successful industrial designer and worked alongside his wife in an adjacent studio for ten years until he became too ill to carry on working. He died from cancer 40 years ago.

Left to support her family through her art, Pollyanna concentrated on industrial landscapes. However, when her work was exhibited in a Sheffield gallery, she discovered that it was some pictures she had made of animals that were more likely to sell. Even after changing her artistic direction to animal painting, she found it hard to make a living. One day, having decided she would have to find a ‘proper job’, she even started to build a bonfire to destroy her work but allowed a friend who was visiting at the time to take away a few pictures before the destruction began.

Through a remarkable stroke of serendipity, the intended inferno did not mark the end of Pollyanna’s artistic career but proved to be the spark that ignited it. Her friend worked for a company in Bakewell that supplied various products to garden centres throughout the UK and abroad. When Angus Stokes, the head of the company, caught sight of the animal portraits that his employee had salvaged, he realised that he could use them to supplement his products.

Over the ensuing years Pollyanna became the UK’s most published wildlife artist, with her prints, calendars and giftware selling in more than 80 countries. Her products have also become much sought-after souvenirs in Harrods’ ‘Signature Department’. The contribution of Anna-Louise, who became her mother’s assistant after the theatre company for which she was working folded, has also been a major factor in her mother’s success.

Pollyanna and Anna-Louise PickeringPollyanna and Anna-Louise Pickering

When the pair began to embark on worldwide painting trips, Pollyanna had to close the bird and animal sanctuary she had run for 15 years in the grounds of her home. However, the Pollyanna Pickering Foundation has carried on her good work by supporting efforts to tackle threats to wildlife in many parts of the world. Explaining the motivation behind their expeditions, Pollyanna said, ‘Once I had the financial means to do so, I decided that I would only paint animals in their natural environment. The more I have painted animals in the wild, the more I have become aware of their intelligence, emotions and their social structures – elephants even mourn their dead.’

During the expeditions, Anna-Louise keeps a detailed diary and Pollyanna uses a simple watercolour kit and graphite pencils to make sketches on hand-made paper. These are worked up into paintings in her studio on her return home. The results are astonishing in their ability to capture the character of animals and their reactions to their environment. They include wonderful depictions of the majestic stance of a lion, the collective purpose of a herd of elephants, the wariness of an individual badger and the startled reaction of a tiger as it stares upwards at the first torrent of a monsoon.

After patient negotiations by Anna-Louise, she and her mother became the first two western women to travel to remote Tibetan border lands where Pollyanna was able to sketch wild pandas. The pair volunteered at a panda hospital and one of the panda paintings is now used in Chinese tourist literature, with further examples being shown in China this summer, where the couple will be the only European representatives in an Artists for Conservation delegation. Pollyanna is the only artist to sketch Abyssinian wolves from life and is involved in a project to conserve the animals, whose numbers have fallen to fewer than 400. And, during visits to South Africa, she and Anna-Louise helped in a cheetah relocation programme and in a project to rescue wild dogs in Namibia.

On many of these trips, the intrepid travellers have had to live in some very primitive conditions, but their expedition to the High Arctic to follow polar bears entailed even more hardship than usual. Wearing 22 layers of clothing, they travelled by dog sled and camped on the ice and, needing to survive on raw meat, they had to forgo their vegetarian principles for the duration of the trip. Pollyanna’s paints were frozen solid, as was the ink in Anna-Louise’s pens. The recompense for this hardship is that it would not have been possible for Pollyanna to capture so perfectly the ‘diamond light’ of the High Arctic if her pictures had not been based on direct observation.

Happy Families (huskies) based on sketches made in the High ArcticHappy Families (huskies) based on sketches made in the High Arctic

All these trips have been recorded in beautifully produced books that combine text, photographs and pictures. Published by Otter House, the titles to date are A Brush with Wildlife, Eye of the Tiger, Giant Pandas and Sleeping Dragons, On Top of the World and The Way of the Wolf. Having now worked on all seven continents, their next title will be Around the World in Eighty Paintings.

Some of Pollyanna’s wildlife paintings are accompanied by depictions of indigenous people and many are ‘double-signed’ to include her name written in native script. This is evident in the work she produced in Bhutan on an expedition sponsored by the Canadian-based Artists for Conservation Foundation, which gave Pollyanna the first fellowship ever awarded to a woman. This is just one of the many awards she has received for her work as an artist, businesswoman and conservationist.

Despite this recognition, Pollyanna has no intention of resting on her laurels, even at the age of 74. She is currently trying to raise £12,500 in aid of wildlife conservation in Kenya in conjunction with the Born Free Foundation; she is producing paintings for a one-person show in Arizona in 2018; and she and Anna-Louise are about to embark on an expedition to the Amazon in pursuit of jaguars.

Of all the accolades Pollyanna has been given, the one that has possibly given her the most satisfaction is the award of an Honorary Degree from the University of Derby, because it was not deemed to be appropriate to give degrees to art students in the years when she was studying. The citation that accompanies the award reads: ‘In recognition of her support for conservation through artistic excellence.’ It is a sentiment that neatly sums up a lifetime of outstanding achievements.

Pollyanna enjoying art as a childPollyanna enjoying art as a child

Further information about Pollyanna Pickering and her art can be found on Pollyannapickering.co.uk

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