A complete career change is always risky, but for a very lucky few it pays dividends, leading to a way of life that ticks all the boxes. Artist Alice Arnold provides the perfect example, says Will Pocklington.
Live to work or work to live? To assume 99 per cent of the UK's population falls into the latter category would not, I think, be unreasonable. The vast majority of people find a job that they tolerate, or perhaps even enjoy, which pays the bills and hopefully leaves a few pennies spare to enjoy the finer things in life.
Then there are those who wake up in the morning buzzing with excitement, fresh ideas, and unstoppable enthusiasm for the day ahead.Recently, I met one of these rare and lucky people. Her name is Alice Arnold: mother of three, through-and-through country girl and remarkably talented Ledbury-based artist – three roles that, I recognised by the end of our conversation, merge and intertwine to create the very energy that leaps from her canvases and grasps one's attention.
I first came across Alice's work at Ben Randall's Beggarbush shoot room, and was drawn to her art like a moth to a flame. It is different and uncomplicated, with a simple elegance that catches the eye and reigns-in the observer. But don't just take my word for it. Her client list is diverse – from castle and racehorse owners to farmers and keen game Shots. A few pieces have also made their way overseas, to both America and Europe.
Up until four years ago, however, things were very different.
Alice's deeply ingrained love of the countryside stems from a childhood spent in rural Derbyshire. “I was surrounded by farms, livestock, ponies and wildlife. We lived in the middle of nowhere,” she explains. “I'd get up early in the mornings and go and help the local farmer with milking and learn about lambing. It was fabulous.”
Fast-forward to her teenage years, beyond her first paid commission of a friend's horse at the age of 15, and it was this love of the countryside that ultimately lead to Alice's chosen career. Upon completion of her A-levels, she almost set out on the well-trodden path to art college, but a fantastic summer job near Hexham in Northumberland – where she helped with chickens, cattle, sheep, reared ponies and rescued racehorses – changed her mind. In fact, she stayed there until the following spring, when she secured a place at Harper Adams Agricultural College to study Rural Enterprise and Land Management. But not before spending a summer carriage driving on the carless Channel Island of Sark. “It is an amazing and beautiful island, with an abundance of wildlife and wild coastline,” she recalls. Further inspiration that would be useful later on.
Whilst working towards her degree, Alice continued with her art – albeit on a very casual basis – often using time with the brush as a welcome respite from coursework. She completed a number of commissions, many of which were of gundogs. “I had my two spaniels with me at Uni, and I'd work them in the beating line on local shoots. One of them, Olly, would also come into lectures and sit under the desk. He was a star,” she laughs.
And this is how things continued for some time. She completed her placement year with land agents Savills and, upon graduation, was offered a role at Farming Online. Two to three years later, she embarked on a stint in occupational health with insurance company Axa.
It was just four years ago, however, when Alice decided to turn her art into a full-time career. Whilst on maternity leave with her third child, she thought to herself : ‘I just can't go back to work.'
“I also wanted to be back in a position where I could enjoy living in the countryside again and spend more time with friends and family,” she says. “The enforced change of lifestyle when you have children turned out to be a blessing for me. It enabled me to question the direction I was going in and refocus it in a way which might have been difficult without some sort of catalyst.”
Whilst the children were hand-painting and colouring, the sporadic sketching sessions that had previously been a ‘when-time-allows' hobby, became increasingly frequent. “It soon became an obsession. I would put the children to bed at 7pm and get my paints out, often painting late into the night and early hours, becoming totally engrossed in my work.”
Sheepishly, she booked in to display some of her work – original pieces, prints and cards – at a couple of local Christmas fairs, and caught her friends off-guard. Many had never seen what she was capable of. “Everybody was so supportive and encouraging, which gave me the confidence that I didn't have before.”
Ever since, things have snowballed. Her prints and cards are now sold in a number of retailers, canvases hang from the walls of some of the most prestigious shoot rooms in the country, and her order book for commissions is bulging.
And her subjects are everything that you would expect. Gamebirds, gundogs, stags, bulls, horses, hounds, hares, and more recently a wild boar, have all made their way onto the raw linen canvases (think fine hessian) that she adorns with both acryllics and soft pastel.
“I paint what I'd want to hang on my own walls,” she says. “A lot of what I paint are very traditional subjects that have been painted for centuries, and I still want them to look how they're supposed to – I don't want to go too abstract – but by positioning them differently with a contemporary composition, I just try to bring them up-to-date.”
In this she succeeds. And some. The contrast between the rough texture of the raw linen and fine detail and bold colours of her paintings – be that a pheasant's plumage or the immense musculature of a Charolais bull – brings her work to life and gives it a powerful presence.
The positioning and posture is, for me at least, the icing on the cake, perfectly capturing the subject's mannerisms. Pheasants strut proud-as-punch, hares sit on full alert, threatening to explode into flight should you move an inch, and stags, the kings of the hill, roar majestically.
“Familiarity with what you paint is essential,” Alice explains. “You need to know how they act and look when they are curious, spooked, relaxed. Take redleg partridges, for instance. They are such neat, precise little birds, and working my spaniels for years taught me how they crouch before taking off, for example. It's all about knowing the exact angles and expressions I need to be transferring onto canvas when I paint.”
When I asked Alice what she most enjoys painting, she almost immediately answered with “the big things.” Her work ranges from small sketches not much larger than a greeting card, to huge wall-filling canvases measuring 6 x 5ft. In fact, she is currently making progress with two fighting pheasants going hell for leather on a 5ft square stretch of linen. More animation, more movement. I can't wait to see it. “Space can be an issue,” she laughs as she tells me about her habit of working on numerous pieces at once, hanging each on the walls of her home where she mulls over them – and also keeps them out of reach of inquisitive children.
With this in mind, I expect she may soon need to relocate to a bigger studio. The ideas, the energy, the excitement, all come with promise of covering every inch of the Arnold residence in due course.
Whether it's at home or in a studio, I have no doubt that each and every morning she will still be rushing about excitedly, considering her latest piece in progress with a genuine buzz.
As far as the work to live or live to work paradigm goes, Alice Arnold sits in a category all of her own.