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.