I am to interview one of the most well-known and technically accomplished wildlife artists in the UK, and not only that, but get to chat to him on our mutual doorstep, our local stomping ground of Lewes. I am met with the most beaming of smiles, Nick looking very much the part of a countryside artist with a cheeky jaunt to his waterproof hat and a healthy glow of fresh air on his cheeks, radiating the freshness and joy of his craft and beloved subject, nature.
Nick is very much a technician and craftsman, having over the years developed his own procedure of intricate engraving and one that emanates from being inspired by nature as a child. He uses his own specific method of engraving on to a solid linen and flax fibre board, creating an effect of chiaroscuro through his inverted etching, enhanced with his choice of rare glass-made pens. He uses a mixture of water and oil-based mediums over a detailed engraving on to hardened linen board, which illustrates the effect of the plates that inspired him when he was little. With his skill driven by the subject, that of nature and animals, the lines, woods, stone, hairs, become the make-up of the paintings to the point where the depictions are so clear and real, Nick really does create the exactitude of the creature under scrutiny, in exquisite detail. He explains how he imagines his method of painting and engraving as recreating the coated effect and aerodynamics of the feathers of a hawk, for instance, or the velvetine flush of a snow leopard’s nose, the layers of hair and plumage that have to be added layer by layer. Even Nick acknowledges his dedication to precision, laughing, “If you like nature and you like detail, you’ve come to the right place!” Nick’s work normally takes some time to complete, from two weeks to three months. He mentions the use of digital art and how this is often a tool he uses for formulating composition and scanning images and printing.
Nick is totally self-taught, which makes his skills even more precise and impressive given the almost academic approach he takes to his art. Although he has been selling drawings of his birds since 1976, it was not until 1982 that he commenced work on a professional level as a freelance wildlife artist, specialising in birds. In 1983 he began exhibiting his work at the ‘Royal Wells Fine Art Gallery’ in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where his show was a sell-out on the opening date. In late 1983 he was commissioned by ‘York Gallery’ Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for three years. It was at this time that he started showing his work on a national level and in 1986, he had work accepted at the Royal Academy of Art summer exhibition, London, on his first attempt.
As we sit and chat, Nick eats his evening meal, as I had brought him into Lewes from his nearby countryside home early and at the time when he would normally have finished painting for the day and be sharing the evening with his wife Penny. Nick’s warmth and kindness comes through in his illustrations of the natural world as much as it does in real life, his magnetism and friendly character being communicated as he shares his experiences and artistic love. We are returned to his initial inspirations. He cherished the early Victorian hand-tinted copper plate engravings of birds and animals that he saw as a child, and this inspired him to create his own. He shares his admiration for some of the more traditional ornithological artists of the Victorian and early Edwardian era such as John Gould and Archibald Thorburn – those he tenderly refers to as the original (and considers himself to be) ‘bird and perch artists’. He reminisces of his rural childhood, coming from a farming ancestry in Kent, he was born and bred in Sussex, and shares how his early experiences led him to his fascination and devotion to nature and his technique becoming driven by his subject. Nick’s favourite animal to portray is the bird, admiring their freedom and understatement. “I wanted to sing and take off”, like a Blackbird, he explained, relaying his sometimes unruly teenage years and artistic flare emerging in passion and maverick rebelliousness. Nick explains his respect for animals over humans: “I get far more bored of people than I do animals”.
Once Nick has finished his food, and I my coffee, we close the interview and Nick presents me with a signed print of his beautiful Snow Leopard of which I treasure and place carefully in my bag, feeling very honoured and very aware of Nick’s caring aura and authenticity. I came away with the distinct realisation I’d had the privilege of conversing with one of the most unique and acclaimed wildlife artists in recent times.