It takes bravery to be a pet portrait painter. Just think about it. You often only have a photo or two to work from, particularly if the pet you’re painting has died. You have to satisfy somebody who loves their pet and knows all its quirks and features better than you ever could. Also, you have to please somebody who might never have commissioned an original work of art before — and might never commission one again.
If you’re not careful, you could really disappoint someone
So it’s a nerve-wracking job. Far more so, arguably, than just painting a scene from your imagination, when there’s no-one to say — “You’ve got that wrong.”
Emma Bowring, the wildlife artist and pet portrait painter who’s just opened up a shop in Lyme Regis, admits: “Every picture that I get, I think, ‘Oh God, am I going to be able to do it?’”
In Bridport, Jay Stevenson doesn’t admit directly to feeling daunted — he’s a man! — but he says of his portraits: “I don’t hand them over until I’m really happy with them. I do a portrait in a couple of days and then I go back to it a few days later with fresh eyes to make sure that I’ve not missed anything and I look at in a mirror, back to front, to make sure that there’s nothing too far out.
“I like a picture to look as good as I can get it. You know, I charge a certain amount but sometimes the work can go on and on until I’m happy. It can be 20 hours sometimes on one portrait.”
Jay is probably best known around Bridport for his work as a signwriter, tree surgeon, DJ and barman at The Ropemakers and The George Hotel. But over the last three years or so, he’s painted nearly 100 portraits, mostly dogs and cats. He taught himself portraiture at school in Walsall, did pop stars for his GCSE, and went to Walsall Art College — but he didn’t like it there. He only got back into sketching through doing a portrait of Bob Marley for a flatmate. The Jamaican reggae star led on to children, granddads and pets.
Jay says: “I put my record player on and it’s peaceful, I get lost in it, it’s kind of meditative… It’s nice to be creative again. You know, I spent 10 years being a tree surgeon and after 10 years using chainsaws and billhooks it’s good to know I’ve still got a steady hand, for one thing!
“I just like it, and I like people’s responses. People sometimes cry or say it’s the best Christmas present they’ve ever had, so it’s lovely. It’s great to know that you’re doing something that makes people happy and they’ve got it for ever and for generations to come.”
Yet other artists often look down on pet portrait painters. Emma Bowring says: “A lot of wildlife artists won’t do pet portraits, they think that it’s a little bit beneath them. One artist I was talking to said that she used to do pet portraits but ‘you just see one black Labrador after another’ and I thought ‘No, you’re doing it wrong there’, because to me every single animal is completely different. They’ve all got a different look, and that’s what people are looking for, they want their dog, and I like the challenge of capturing a particular animal, I like getting the little details.
“It can be stressful to begin with, but you just sit there and work through it and at some point it suddenly clicks — normally as the eyes come in, then you know whether you’ve got it or not.”
Emma paints in oils, building up the layers, Jay prefers chalk pastels.
He says: “I mostly do pastel paintings with chalk pastels but I also work in pencil, graphite, charcoal. I’ve done some paintings and oil pastels but my chosen medium is chalk pastel in colour. Holding a piece of chalk just feels a bit more natural to me than holding a paintbrush.”
The aim is to produce a picture that, as Jay says, is “a piece of art, it’s more than a photograph, it’s different.”
Emma agrees: “It is something else. It’s like it’s something real, like having the animal there almost. One lady told me she just sits staring at the portrait of her dog on the wall all the time, and she’s still got the dog, so she could look at that, but she sits staring at the portrait.”
Pet portrait painters belong to a distinctive British artistic tradition that goes back to the 18th century. Various factors then converged to create a taste, among them the Agricultural Revolution (with its experiments in breeding and setting up of agricultural societies and shows), the import of exotic species (e.g. Stubbs’ zebra), the rise of fox-hunting and horse-racing, and a growing interest in natural history illustration (as witness Bewick’s woodcuts).
The result was an abundance of animal images, spread across the walls of all classes. As Elspeth Moncrieff writes in Farm Animal Portraits (Antique Collectors’ Club, 1996): “A small farmer was as proud of an animal which had carried off first prize at the local agricultural show as Lord Spencer was of his famous herd of pedigree Shorthorns… This type of painting is part of the British craft tradition which would have enlivened every ordinary household.”
Who served this popular taste? “These painters were often itinerant house-painters and sign-writers, or craftsmen such as plumbers or carpenters who painted as a sideline.” Plus ça change. Emma Bowring took up painting as a sideline while she was running a sports shop in Honiton, and when The Yarn spoke to Jay he’d just been doing sign-writing work for Soulshine Café and Mercato Italiano in Bridport and The Seaside Boarding House at Burton Bradstock.
Will antique collectors of the future seek out the work of pet portrait painters?
Richard Kay, the pictures director at Lawrences in Crewkerne has written in Antique Collecting magazine (September 2010, Vol. 45 No. 4) about the distinctions between provincial, primitive and amateur painters. He’s auctioned many “naïve” works and says: “Who can say what will happen in 100 years’ time? We’re astonished already by what people collect that they wouldn’t have touched 20 or 30 years ago. But what people do like is a record that shows the changing appearance of animals. For example, people buy pictures of old English bulldogs because they look so different to the way that English bulldogs do today. So people who are now skilfully and carefully painting someone’s Labrador or Yorkshire terrier might well find their work is collectable in 100 years because the terrier might then have long legs.”
The focus on getting an accurate likeness can be applauded. Or likenesses: Jay’s been commissioned to produce a triptych of a dog as a puppy, in its prime and in its old age — while one owner has asked to be painted with a dog. Who knows? Perhaps West Dorset’s farmers may even recover a liking for paintings of their livestock. Robot milking at Cardsmill Farm near Whitchurch Canonicorum would make a very 21st-century image.