You might remember Christian the lion as a media sensation during his time in London. Or perhaps from his resurgence as a viral phenomenon online. This may be the first you’re hearing of him. Either way, one thing is for certain – if this cheeky chap hasn’t stolen your heart to date, it’s only a matter of time.
Whenever possible, I like to deliver my artwork in person. In 2020, such a trip led me to the home of Derek Cattani. If on that day you had told me where this meeting would lead, I never would have believed you.
Over a glass of wine, I discovered that Derek was the official photographer of Christian the lion and that he was around Christian for much of his time in London. He told me all sorts of wonderful stories of his time with Christian – about his antics and his personality. Nowadays Derek works as a trustee for LionAid – a charity working hard to save lions around the globe and to end the decline of lion populations.
Derek proposed a collaboration – a drawing of Christian from one of his photos to help raise funds for LionAid – and with my enthusiastic acceptance, the project was born.
Born in captivity in 1969, Christian and one of his sisters were acquired by Harrods department store in London and made available for sale in their Zoo department (I know!). They were quite the attraction, drawing visitors in from far and wide.
Enter John Rendall and Anthony "Ace" Bourke. Concerned by the condition the lions were kept in, they decided to purchase Christian with the aim of providing him a better life. A few meetings with Harrods, some logistical scrambling and one heavy investment later and they were on their way out the door with a lion cub.
Christian spent the first year of his life living in the aptly named Sophistocat furniture shop, where he had the basement as his kingdom. He soon became quite the attraction and his playful inquisitive character made him quite a hit with both the press and a plethora of celebrities.
With the blessing of a local vicar, Christian was regularly exercised in the grounds of the Moravian Church. On these daily trips he could run free – exploring the gardens, chasing a football and when permitted, his human-pride members.
But as Christian grew larger, it was clear he was outgrowing his London lifestyle. He was visited by Virginnia McKenna and Bill Travers (stars of ‘Born Free’) who suggested he was introduced to George Adamson, the conservationist. Adamson agreed to reintegrate Christian into the wild in the Kora National Reserve in Kenya, sending Christian on the second stage of his amazing journey.
Over the course of a year, Adamson worked tirelessly to integrate Christian, introducing him to other lions to establish a pride.
Upon receiving word of Christian’s successful rewilding in 1971, John and Ace visited the reserve. They were warned that Christian might not remember them. Undeterred, they headed out into the reserve. Upon first sight, Christian bounded towards them, jumping up to put his arms around them and nuzzling them face-to-face. Decades later, this interaction provided the climactic moment for the emotional viral video seen by millions around the world.
After 1973, Christian was not seen again by Adamson, which was taken as a sign of a successful reintegration into the wild.
Those who knew him described Christian as having a very gentle temperament. As playful and inquisitive – almost like a labrador. As always happy, with a gaze that seems to stare both into you and through you at the same time.
It’s this description of Christian’s character that I set out to represent. I wanted to show his playful side and most critically his unique gaze. This project was interesting as I was limited to Derek’s photographs. Derek presented me with a great range of photographs to choose from and I was struggling to choose which to work from.
Just when I thought I’d made up my mind (and not long before I was due to start drawing) Derek sent me one additional photo that he had found. It was perfect – an 8-month-old Christian staring up at the camera, in the middle of a play session in his regular stomping ground. It was exactly the template I was looking for. He appeared full of joy and ready to pounce in play. There was scope for me to make him fluffier and heighten the intensity of his stare, to really highlight his endearing character. The stage was set.
I decided this had to be my biggest drawing to date – I could think of no better way to present the magnitude of his charisma and his story. So I cut the paper as large as my drawing board could take and set to work.
Crafted entirely with pencils (no charcoal or powdered graphite), he took 6 weeks to complete. Staying focussed on him for all that time was a big mental challenge. The entire drawing was created live to an audience online. Their support and encouragement definitely helped bolster me through the process.
Whilst this drawing is based on a single photo, it is not without deviation. I went quite off-piste with the textures, using my experience of drawing other cats to guide me. This type of work can make for rewarding artwork, but can be exhausting.
In naming this piece, I spent time reflecting on what Christian’s story meant to me. ‘Christian’ was his name, but I wanted the title to encapsulate more than that. This was about his story from captivity in London to his liberation in Kenya. I settled on ‘Uhuru’ – the Swahili word for ‘freedom’.
This drawing was produced with a charitable collaboration in mind from the start. That made it a perfect fit for my Felidae series. 25% of the proceeds from this drawing and the associated prints will be donated to LionAid to support the incredible work they are doing for Lions across the world.
This drawing was my biggest and most time-consuming piece to date. It truly took me on a journey, with highs, lows and everything in between. It’s safe to say I have fallen for this lion and I’ll be sad to see him go.
As I sit writing this, Christian stares at me from his new frame. I’m still overwhelmed by his size. Significantly bigger than lifesize, he is a sight to behold. He is expectant, ready for action. He has a story to tell. It has been my honour to play a small part in helping him tell it.
Creeping stealthily out of the shadows with only one thing on her mind. The moonlight illuminates this jaguar's face just moments before she delivers her fatal blow – a sight most only see once in a lifetime. 'Now You See Me' allows you to explore that moment. Experience this formidable creature in her element, showcasing her hunting prowess in all its glory.
All of my pencil artworks draw heavily from photography – it’s the only way to be able to learn the textures and details of a subject and understand how to represent them on paper. Wildlife photographers love capturing big cats, often in striking and powerful positions. Photos capturing these moments look incredible. They showcase these creatures at their most fierce and powerful.
In order to take such photos, you must be patient – waiting for the right moment, in the right place. However, there are limitations to this craft. You have to be a safe distance from your subject, watching from the sidelines. With this piece, I wanted to capture a moment that you couldn’t photograph (or at least, could only photograph once!).
From here, the idea for ‘Now You See Me’ was born – a piece striving to capture the magnitude of the moment when you realise it’s too late. When this most powerful of predators appears from the darkness with her eyes fixed on you. I wanted to create something that elevates the heart rate. With the strongest jaw of any cat (around twice that of a tiger), a jaguar seemed perfect for the job.
More than that, I wanted this portrait to really create an interactive experience in any space in which she’s displayed. In low light, just the whites are visible – the eyes follow you around the room as they hang in the darkness, framed by a glint of whiskers. As the lights come up, she comes into view, and it becomes clear what you’re facing.
The majority of my works are completed in graphite. In this case, that just wasn’t going to cut it. To get the darkness I was striving for, I called on charcoal. Whilst charcoal is a beautiful medium, it presented me with a fresh set of challenges.
Charcoal smudges much more readily than graphite. As such, I had to change the order in which I completed the drawing. I worked in segments from left to right, completing each area as I went rather than building up several layers over time as I usually do.
Beyond this, I had to get creative when combining graphite with the charcoal. I still wanted the control and lightness of graphite for some areas, but had to add it on top of the charcoal base, which meant working from dark-to-light rather than my favoured approach of light-to-dark.
As I get deeper into this series with conservation as a central pillar, I’m learning many things. Not least that as humans we have a tendency to not see things until it’s too late. With a conservation status of Near Threatened and an ever declining population, it is my hope that Now You See Me helps raise awareness of the potential calamity approaching jaguars before it’s too late.
For that reason, 25% of the proceeds from this drawing and its limited edition prints will be donated to Jaguars Into The Wild – a foundation based in Mexico. They are working tirelessly to release captured Jaguars back into the wild and helping to increase Jaguar populations one cat at a time. They’re also committed to preserving the genetic makeup of the wild jaguar population and raising awareness within the local population. It is an honour to play a part in the effort to help recover this magnificent species when they need us most.
Limited edition fine art prints are available now from my shop.
Within my Felidae series, I’m exploring personality. Not necessarily just how it appears in a moment of drama, more so who the cat is; how the cat looks at you; how the cat makes you feel.
Whilst individual cats have lots of distinguishing marks, as humans we rarely see them as individuals. When presented with two lions, we see two lions. This series examines the characteristics each species exudes as a whole. In the case of Now You See Me, it might be unclear what she’s thinking or feeling, but there’s an undeniable confidence in her stare.
Entering my studio each day in the final stages of this drawing confirmed that I had achieved what I had set out to do. This piece gave me a jolt each day before I turned the lights on and I’d often find myself turning the lights off and on just for my enjoyment. I was truly saddened to say goodbye to this drawing, but I look forward to bringing others joy for many years.
When you picture a lion, what do you see? Do you imagine a mane, surrounding a powerful battle-scarred face, with a hint of tooth on show? Or perhaps you see a stately creature, sitting regally – head held high, gazing out across his kingdom. When we think of lions, our thoughts so often go straight to power, might, even ferocity. I believe there’s so much that we’re missing...
Physiologically, lions are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Their size, strength and hunting prowess is rivalled by few in the animal kingdom. As mere humans, we should steer well clear. However, historically we have had one thing going for us – our brains. They have allowed us to avoid or outsmart these top predators and stay alive.
In the modern age, we’ve taken things so far beyond survival – dominating huge areas of land, once wild, and taking whatever we fancy for our own. This has left lions on the back foot; they’re being squeezed by human actions, with terrifying consequences.
One Sunday afternoon, I stumbled across the story of Bobby the Lion. With a tear in my eye I learned of the harrowing conditions he was kept in for the first 12 years of his life – confined to a 15 foot square enclosure having never felt grass under his feet. This lion was reduced to nothing by human behaviour.
Thankfully, Bobby had a hero in the form of Peter Sampson. He bought the site where Bobby was held and transformed it into what is now one of the best small zoos in Europe – Paradise Wildlife Park.
However, I couldn’t help but see parallels between Bobby’s story, and the stories of wild lions across the world. It seems to me that lions are being held captive in their natural habitats by human actions. Their numbers decline as we destroy their habitats and push them back into ever-smaller regions. And all they can do is watch. More than ever, they are in our hands.
All this left me wanting to create a portrait about respect. Whilst I wanted to showcase the magnificence of a lion (a task that completes itself, when you simply present them as they are), I wanted to represent more.
I wanted to show his vulnerability. His calm demeanor, despite the fact he’s staring into the eye of the storm asking the question, “what’s your next move”?
I wanted to give you the opportunity to connect with this lion, eye to eye, and for you to think – about this animal; about his sentience; about his future.
So I began what was the largest drawing I had ever completed. This pride male lion, drawn to scale (the only way to truly represent his grandeur) presented many challenges – a fitting scenario given what lions are going through.
For starters, the sheer scale of the drawing required a stamina I didn’t know I had in me; the drawing took over 60 painstaking hours and several hundred thousand pencil strokes to complete. I had to take special care with this drawing to make sure it didn’t look ‘busy’. A lion's mane is a sight to behold, but as with all my portraits, I wanted the eyes to be the
centre of attention.
Not to mention, getting the drawing to the correct scale was a big challenge in itself. I trawled through datasheets of tagged lions and watched many videos of people interacting with lions, most notably Kevin Richardson, in order to make the best judgement I could.
I’m pleased to say that I think I’ve accomplished my goals with this portrait. It’s dark, moody character and sheer magnitude steals the attention of a room and his pensive gaze follows you as you move about the space.
I had the pleasure of watching people interact with this piece on exhibition last month. Seeing them move straight across the room to get lost in front of my work was a real honour.
It went on to win first place in the ‘In The Wild’ art competition. And whilst that was a privilege, what matters to me most is its effect on observers when they met his gaze. I’ve been told repeatedly of the awe and wonder people felt whilst stood in front of him and nothing makes me happier.
But to me, none of that matters if I can’t use it to do some good.
As with my entire Felidae Series, 25% of the proceeds are donated to supporting cat conservation. In this case, nothing felt more fitting than donating to LionAid – a wonderful UK-based charity working globally to save lions and end the decline of wild lion populations.
I’m thrilled to be able to do my part to help save this incredible species in their time of need.
Limited edition fine art prints are available for pre-order from my shop. If you’re interested in the original, get in touch.
Creating this piece was a bit of a roller coaster for me. It’s full of juxtaposition. Simultaneously a celebration of nature at its finest and nature at its worst – the lion itself versus human behaviour. His majesty versus his vulnerability. Our thoughtless actions versus our fight to make things right.
And so it is with mixed emotions that I humbly present to you, ‘The Head of The King’.
Six years old, sitting crossed legged on my bedroom floor. It’s after school and I’m focussed on just one question. My prize possession, two shoe boxes of tiny animal figures sprawled across the room. Rodents the size of elephants, rabbits the size of frogs. Creatures of all shapes and sizes staring up at me. But… which to draw?
For as long as I can remember, that has been the question. And I have explored a lot of possible answers, with one goal in mind – creating realistic representations of animals on paper. Sure, I dabbled in bright pink tigers and furry fish, but it always came back to one thing – drawing creatures as they are, as realistically as possible.
Why strive for realism? Because for me, the beauty is already there. Nature gets it right. The most incredible textures and tones are right there, staring back at me saying ‘catch me if you can’. Perhaps, I thought, if I can capture them in enough detail, I can eternalise them.
Fast forward to today, thousands of drawing-hours later and more pencils than I dare to think about, and here I am – ecstatic to be presenting you my first official series of portraits: Felidae.
This series is my opportunity to really get to know a range of characters from within what is perhaps my favourite animal family. To be up close and personal with them in a way that few humans could ever dream of. To do more than just reproduce their appearance, but to really try and capture their essence, their sentience, their soul.
The work I have done so far on this series has been a powerfully emotive and humbling experience. It has made me think not just about these incredible felines, but about my place in the world, my responsibility to these creatures and to the planet, and my intentions as an artist. Each cat has truly taken me on a journey. They’ve shared themselves with me and I with them. I feel like a piece of me is ingrained in each portrait and I hope that adds something to the finished article.
But why cats?
Cats have a special place in my heart. They have been part of my family my whole life and there are few creatures I find as inspiring. Unfortunately we’re living in an age where human activity is encroaching on cats like never before and in many cases pushing them to the edge of existence. This project is an attempt to showcase cats through my lens, to highlight how I see them and to try and share that with you.
Felines are often presented as powerful, fierce, majestic creatures and of course they are! But I also see different sides to them that I’m trying to portray. I want to show their fragility, their vulnerability, their stoicism and their determination. I want to give you an opportunity to connect with them in a way that you haven’t before – to feel their emotions and know that they are truly alive, just like you.
Perhaps, if we can learn to see cats in this way, we might be able to reverse our impact and build a better world for us all.
Beyond that, most people only ever experience big cats on a screen or as pictures in books. At these scales, something is lost. Few will ever have the chance to stand nose to nose with a full size Lion and even fewer live to tell the tale! I want to give people the opportunity to experience exactly that. To get within touching distance of these creatures and appreciate their magnitude. Several of the drawings in this series are drawn to scale (and some even larger than life!) for exactly this reason. It’s not just the details but the scale of these beasts that fill me with awe.
Cats have enriched my life in so many ways. I owe it to them to try and return the favour. For that reason, 25% of the proceeds from all artwork in this series will be donated to charities supporting cat conservation. Right now, they need our help more than ever so I’m thrilled to be able to support them however I can.
One of the aims of this series is to represent a wide range of the Felidae family and showcase their diversity. I’m not certain how many portraits I’ll need to draw to create the diversity I’m after, but time will tell. For me, that’s the beauty of a series – it’s finished when it’s finished. When I get there, I think I’ll know.
Each new portrait in the series will be released one at a time, with an accompanying limited edition print run. They will be released first to those on my mailing list, before being released to the public.
I’m excited to continue working on this series, and if you experience even a fraction of the emotional connection with these portraits that I have while creating them, then my goal is complete.
If you told six year old Emma that she’d one day make her living drawing things she loved, I’m not sure she’d believe you. To be honest, I don’t think the thought even crossed her mind. She just spent her time doing what she loved. Many things have changed since then, but perhaps more have stayed the same. I’m still completely enamoured with animals. It’s still just me, the pencils and the paper. And the same two boxes of animal figures may or may not still be under my bed.
I struggle to put into words how incredibly fortunate I feel to be able to call this my job. I’m acutely aware that it’s only possible because of you, my supporters, and for that I thank you. I’m thrilled to bring you this series of portraits and I hope they bring you joy.