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’.