Robert E Fuller is one of Britain's foremost wildlife artists. His paintings sell all over the world and his trademark, highly-detailed images have been adopted at home by the RSPB and the National Trust. He has exhibited in wildlife galleries across Europe and up to 7,000 people visit his own gallery in North Yorkshire each year.
A recognized authority on wildlife, Robert often appears on television and regularly writes about his wildlife subjects for his local newspaper, The Yorkshire Post. His life-long passion for the natural world was shaped by his upbringing on a farm on the Yorkshire Wolds. Here he tells his story.
The Early Days
I was born in 1972, and moved to Great Givendale, not far from where I still live today, when I was 2. My father, Richard Fuller, is well known for his conservationist approach to farming. His efforts to make Givendale a haven for wildlife at the same time as being a commercially successful farm won him the much-coveted silver lapwing award for farm conservation and the farmer of the year award presented by the Duke of Edinburgh.
He would take my brother, David Fuller, and I out into the fields with him and show us nesting sites, badger setts, roe rings or otter tracks. He published a book on the wildlife at Givendale and I used to help him with the photographs, shining a torch through fungi for him. In the school holidays we roamed the farm freely. My mother fondly called us 'feral'. We were always adopting orphaned birds, foxes, even a deer once and the garden was littered with aviaries, coops, fox-runs and hutches. Looking back, my mum was exceedingly tolerant of it all!
A particular favourite of mine was Gizmo, an orphaned little owl. Gizmo used to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle. I taught him how to catch beetles by letting them loose across the living room carpet. Above: An early Robert E Fuller drawing of pond life, Robert E Fuller (left) as a young boy with older brother, David (& freshly caught lobsters), Robert (middle) with mother Frances Fuller and brother David
School, on the other hand, "got in the way" of these formative experiences. It was rather a nuisance having to go to school. I was dyslexic, which made lessons a chore for me. My mother used to try to stick up for me and once pointed out to the teachers that my drawing was good. I remember the teacher telling her: "All children can draw!"
By the time I was 14, however, I was allowed to give up French for extra art tuition. Every art project I was given, I turned into a wildlife-orientated one. The 'food' project became a series of drawings of fish, bulls and chickens. The 'small things' project became drawings of chicks in the nest, feathers and shells. Above: Robert hand rearing a roe deer, Robert E Fuller (middle) out walking with father Richard Fuller and older brother, Robert with one of his many ferrets
I left school at 15 and, largely on the merit of my portfolio, was accepted on a two year BTEC national diploma course in art and design at York College for Art and Technology. Finally I could dedicate every day to doing what I loved best.
But it took me some time to adjust to the course. To my horror, I was banned from painting wildlife and set to work on wide variety of subjects - from life drawing to jewellery design. We would practise tonal values, light and shade, perspectives and ellipses until we had perfected them. I found the size and scale of the projects terrifying. I had been used to doing small, highly detailed drawings mainly in pen and ink. Now I was expected to produce full colour drawings on A1 size canvases and larger.
I was the youngest on the course by a long way. Most of the students had come onto the course after completing their A-Levels and were 18 or 19 with all the confidence that sixth form had given them. But after years of being the bottom of class, I was now gaining confidence in myself and in my work.
I went on to Camarthen College of Art and Technology in Wales to study wildlife illustration. It was one of the only courses in the UK to focus on wildlife. In hindsight, I think it might have been better off continuing to broaden my skills on a more general art course rather than specialising so early. But at last, I was painting wildlife. I spent my days trawling the countryside for subjects and, having found them, producing a series of sketches from life. I would use these drawings as the main reference for subsequent paintings back in the studio.
However, life drawing and wildlife do not marry well. Most of the time you only get a fleeting glimpse of your subject and you can waste a lot of time sketching impressions rather than watching the subject itself. Of course it goes without saying that the great British weather does not help either. I decided to use my camera instead. I discovered that I could concentrate on capturing my subject on film first and concentrate on capturing it on canvas later, back in the studio. My Minolta 7000 with 70-210mm lens, although not the quickest of cameras, became an invaluable tool for my work. I was awarded 'Student of the Year' when I graduated in 1994. Above: Robert showing Grandmother Kath Fuller his end of year show, Robert with paintings behind at an exhibition stand about sealife, a sculpture of dinosaurs by Robert, Robert with his dinosaur sculpture
I wasn't sure I would be able to make my living by painting alone and toyed with several career paths when I finished college, all of them involving wildlife. But it was a summer job at Chester Zoo that sealed my fate. Working there was a challenge; I lost a tooth to a camel and was knocked to the floor by a leopard cub. But the staff would let me sketch the animals in my spare time and when I left I sold over £1000 worth of paintings to them.
It was my first major sale, and it spurred me on. After college, I set up trading under the name 'Natural Images.' My first commissions came from family friends. One commission led to another, which in turn led to a third and a fourth.
My first exhibition was at 'Talent's Fine Arts' in Malton in 1992. It was a sell out. The gallery wanted me to sign him up for another exhibition the following spring. But I got my first big break when a journalist from The Shooting Times came to Givendale to write an article on my father. As they were sitting chatting in the kitchen, the journalist asked about the paintings of wildlife on the wall. Then he came up to my studio and interviewed me as well. He compared me to Roger McPhail, the artist whose work graces Finest Scotch Whiskey's 'Famous Grouse' bottles, in his piece.
Under a year later, at the age of 20, I exhibited alongside McPhail in Paris' La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature. Above: Robert sets up his studio in his bedroom at his parent's house, field sketches with dog Pep!<</em>>!!
A new gallery at Fotherdale Farm
My wife, Victoria, and I moved here in 1998. There was plenty of space for a gallery and studio, and lots of wildlife in the surrounding fields. But very soon we ran out of space. I was holding two exhibitions a year, one in spring and one in November, each attracting up to 1000 people a time. Visitors had to tramp through the house to get up to the gallery and studio, which were on the first floor. So in 2001 we applied for a rural enterprise grant to convert the redundant farm buildings next to Fotherdale Farm into a large 60ft gallery and adjoining workshops. The beamed gallery and studio that you see today are the result.
"It was good to meet with you this afternoon. But I just have to tell you how completely overwhelmed I was to see your wonderful work in the gallery and what a genius I think you are. For one person to have so much talent is mind blowing. Not to mention your dedication to wildlife conservation and your patience with your subjects. After leaving your gallery I drove around Thixendale and its beautiful surrounding countryside, just thinking about the paintings I had seen. You were so kind today. Thank you Jilly Harley"
"Many thanks for sending the prints, they are wonderful. They arrived just before 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, I couldn't get them opened quick enough to see them. I did not get much work done that day as I kept going back to see them. Keep up the good work as your drawings are very good. Wishing you both a very happy Christmas. Yours Jan Heins"