Andrew Ellis has a special affinity with grey partridges - he rears them, paints them and hunts them with falcons. But it is his immense talent as an artist for which his name is best known.
Though maybe better known for cream teas, the west country has been home for some world renowned artists, Robert Lenkiewicz and Barbara Hepworth among the most famous. Now of a totally different genre, Devon-born Andrew Ellis has many admirers around the world for his ability to capture wildlife on canvas in a way which is both original yet incredibly realistic.
Thirty-six-year-old Andrew has been based at Plymstock, just on the Plymouth-South Hams boundary for the last 10 years. The surrounding area, with the sea and its marshland to the south and the Dartmoor wilds to the north, offers a fertile and green backdrop that has given inspiration for many of Andrew's works.
Falconry has been a favourite subject matter for Andrew since he fell in love with the speed and agility of birds of prey many years ago. "I was around nine or ten when I went to visit my grandparents in Newlyn, Cornwall. There were a lot of tin mines in the area and I remember standing on the cliffs near Botallack mine with my father. A peregrine came drifting by on the thermals and that was it for me. I was hooked from then on. Since then I've always been involved in falconry and birds of prey."
It would be impossible to capture on canvas the feelings of speed, power and grace of these birds in the way that Andrew does so brilliantly without having spent hour upon hour in the field training and working with falcons. When I visited him it became obvious that he was as much at home in the field as he is in the studio. He stepped out of the pigeon hide on the edge of a stubble field carpeted with bright yellow rape shoots in early October saying: "There were 70 or 80 pigeons here this morning."
The pigeons were circling, but an oak tree on the far side of the field was a far more effective magnet than the one that was rotating 40 yards in front of us. "Painting is the only thing I've ever been really good at; if I wasn't an artist I'd most likely be a keeper," he said.
At present, Andrew helps local farmer Wilf Walters by managing around 1,300 acres over two farms. In exchange for his keepering services the shoot captain Paul Shepard and the rest of the guns who share the ground allow, and encourage, Andrew to fly his birds, the English partridge and pheasants he raises. "We are surrounded by smaller shoots here but we are really trying to encourage the wild birds in the area. I only raise greys and between us we all try to work together in the best interests of each other. The disturbance to each others' sports is minimal and as well as providing fantastic home grown sport for each other, I have game birds and falcons to work with on my door-step. The game I raise and time I put in has provided inspiration time and again for my paintings." Ironically it was not the falconry paintings that first got Andrew noticed. Whilst studying at Exeter College of Art and Design between 1987-89, he won a British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) competition. This led to being chosen to illustrate Ranulf Raynor's impressive coffee table book Story of the Sporting Gun.
Having started beating as a young boy, he has always been familiar with shooting and shooters, the grouse and moors of Scotland and Yorkshire proving to be as emotive a subject as the stubble fields of the west country. His grouse and woodcock paintings have adorned the covers of magazines and the pages of fieldsports books. Andrew's fascination with the birds themselves is what allows him to capture them so accurately from the most challenging and unconventional perspectives that he has made a trademark of his work.
Though his falconry and game bird paintings have really cemented his place as one of today's finest sporting artists, he has also taken inspiration from fellow artist and friend Alan Hunt, regarded by many as one of the world's finest big game artists. The two met at a falconry fair at which Andrew was exhibiting in 1991 and were again brought together when Andrew was subsequently signed by the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair, who also represented Alan. Following numerous research trips to Africa, he has been able to transfer his detailed style and astonishing ability to accurately portray the grace, power and movement he is so familiar with in the birds of prey, into capturing the larger game of Africa on canvas. After his recent trip to Botswana, and as the pigeons did begin to react to our magnet, he said: "My attention continues to be lavished on birds, particularly birds of prey. But, as I have developed a greater understanding of their form, so my style has developed and matured, allowing me to transit that understanding and style on other subjects from the animal world. My ultimate goal as a wildlife artist is to be able to capture the unique spirit and essence of an animal - whether a falcon in pursuit of its quarry or a grouse at full speed."
The pigeons began to come in steadily and as they did, the number of truly authentic decoys increased amongst our pattern. The evening was closing in however and it was time to see to the partridge, the most important source of both sport and reference material. The chattering greys had little idea of how important they were as they chirped away in their holding pen. One loyal hen, released days earlier, played a game of hide and seek beneath the set-aside grass as we fed its companions in the pen. Three more birds were released and photographed as they took to the air before dropping and circling round us in an arc spanning two fields before skimming in, hugging the contours within a throaty call from their previous bedfellows.
Little did they know that one day their image could be selling for tens of thousands of pounds and be adorning the walls of middle-eastern royalty. Such is the nature of Andrew's work, his interesting perspectives and ability to capture the moment of action between falcon and quarry, his paintings have proved hugely popular among the falconry community of the Middle East. Only 12 months ago Andrew spent several weeks with a hunting party as they traversed the dunes of Morocco in pursuit of the elusive houbara. These rare birds are a favourite quarry for their speed and strength and now massive breeding and conservation programmes, funded by hunters, have ensured that there is a huntable surplus. Though the species and settings couldn't be further apart, skills Andrew has honed on the stubble fields of Devon have been used with interest to capture the more exotic hunter and hunted of the Moroccan desert.
Andrew's work continues to improve and his subject matter grows in ambition with every brushstroke. Regardless of how far afield his work takes him, what remains important to the artist is the land he manages, the birds he rears and the inspiration they have given him in this artistic corner just outside Plymouth.