Clare Brownlow is a one-of-a-kind artist. Patrick Tillard visits her brilliantly manic family home near Jedburgh.
If you're a traditionalist when it comes to art, a Guggenheim or Louvre aficionado, Pheasant Feather Art might not be for you. This is art that goes against the grain. In these days of iPhones, iPads and iEverything, finding a unique niche within any sector is no easy task. And let's face it, when it comes to art, most things have been drawn, most mediums have been explored. So for a Clare Brownlow painting to be instantly recognisable as exactly that, you know she is onto something special.
After a four and a half hour yomp to Jedburgh, overdosing on caffeine and knee-deep in junk food wrappers, Williamrig, home of the Brownlow family, is a very welcome sight. I am greeted first by Wiggy, a bonkers sandy cocker whose tail-wagging almost propels her airborne. Next are two hyper, rosie-cheeked toddlers, Harry (4) and Alfie (2) – hardy boys brought up on YouTube clips of roaring stags rather than Cbeebies – and Clare and Charlie, who I first met fishing a beautiful Highland spate river in 2010. Both as inviting and chipper now as they were then, I could have been here to interview either one of them.
Five years ago, with Charlie made redundant, Clare at Leith School of Art, a mortgage to pay and a first child on the way, the newlywed couple were in a hard place – to put it lightly. But this rough patch proved to be the finest spur as they decided to break away from the rat race and ambitiously pursue careers reflecting their genuine passions. And they haven't looked back. Charlie, an unassuming and gregarious country sports fanatic, developed Charles Brownlow Ltd and has since built a portfolio comprising some of the finest estates in Scotland. And colourful Clare who, having put her brushes down on finishing art school two weeks prior to giving birth to her first son, got back into the studio, but with a completely reinvigorated medium...
“A few months after Harry was born, we were down visiting my parents in Norfolk,” she begins. “I hadn't painted for a while as I just didn't have time, but my father is a great artist and seeing his pictures got me itching to sketch again. I'd left all my art clobber up north though – the entire contents of the car was child orientated, as any mother will know!
“My father grew up in rural Kenya and has a knack for turning unusual materials into everyday accessories, one of which was a duster made of pheasant feathers wrapped in gaffa tape. I don't know what possessed me, but I picked one from the bunch. The quink ink he uses to write in his beautiful game books was out on the table, so I dipped the quill and started messing around with it.
“It was really fun, and with the splatters it was completely different to anything else I'd seen – no one else paints with a pheasant feather.” And so it began. Two years later, her hobby snowballed into a career and Pheasant Feather Art was launched. The catalyst to this advance is the unique and unpredictable splashing effect caused by the point of the quill catching the grain of the water colour paper, giving the subject motion, vibrancy and perceivable character. This is what makes a Clare Brownlow a Clare Brownlow. “It was something that just materialised. You can aim the direction, but otherwise it has a mind of its own, which is great because it means that no two pictures are ever the same. It's all chance, but obviously skilful chance,” she jokes.
And as her family has grown, so too has her reputation. Year one (2011) consisted mainly of postcard sales. Now Clare is undertaking commissions wider than her arms can stretch, bespoke game cards, tailored estate maps, cheeseboards, table mats and UK-sourced decorated crockery. “I was in the post office the other day and I was sending prints to America, an original to London, and products to Australia. I thought, ‘you know what, this is pretty cool!'” And there's no commission too daunting, whether it is for your dining-room wall or simply to add colour to your morning coffee. “I never turn projects down,” she says. “Some are an epic challenge but I like to give everything a go.”
Clare's work ethic and motivation is staggering. But then to come from the adversities she has faced to where she is now, while juggling being a mother of two and the sole driving force behind Pheasant Feather Art, all before hitting 30, takes some get-up. “Charlie says if I was a dog I'd be a terrier – basically, high-wired, energetic, and I never give up,” she says, laughing. “But I love being busy. I'm one of those people.”
On top of her work and expeditions with Charlie and the boys – who are now charging around the garden duelling and felling mushrooms with bamboo sticks – Clare donates work to charity, attends numerous shows throughout the year, and organises the Arty Farty Fare: an intricate and dynamic high-end event bursting with the soul and atmosphere that many larger shows are void of. And with major ideas in the pipeline to increase both the painting and production sides of her business, she is far from resting on her laurels. Watch out Cath Kidston!
From commissions of spaniels and horses to flying black grouse, hares and bumblebees, her work puts a fresh spin on subjects that have been the focus of sporting artists for decades. “I basically draw whatever takes my mood. I get a lot of my inspiration from walks around the garden with my boys. We call them ‘Williamrig Safaris'. We see all sorts of game, catch trout in the river, pick blackberries and feed the chickens – until the bloody badger ate them all!
“I really enjoy drawing African wildlife as well,” she continues, pointing towards an inquisitive ostrich on the opposite wall. “I've been out there five times and love how quirky and different the animals are.”
Sitting in Clare's studio, with panoramic views of Roxburgh arable, their green-eyed monster-stirring blend of enjoyment, work and family is idyllic. “In the Brownlow household you can expect my kids to be half naked, wearing fancy dress and flat caps, covered in mud and peeing in the garden, while being chased by a mental spaniel. And I love it,” she laughs. “I do call up friends every now and then, with a glass of wine in hand, and ask, ‘can you just talk to me about bars and high heels?', but I'm happiest when I have my wellies and my boys. I used to do a lot of shooting, but the problem with being married to a sporting agent is that he steals all the invites!”
At least being married to Charlie must keep her in quills? “It helps, but for this time of year I don't have as many as I would like.” There must be well over 100 tail feathers in bundles dotted around the room. (At this point, Clare drops in that she welcomes being sent feathers – her address can be found on her website.)
She gets out her coloured inks and quills and lets me into the magic circle – full tricks of her trade are top secret I'm afraid. My turn. It feels old-school and calligraphic, strangely fun and satisfying. Shakespeare had no idea that he was teetering on the edge of some quirky art while scribing Othello. A few strokes in, and with the touch of an elephant, I think it's safe to say that Clare has nothing to worry about.
Moving on swiftly from our artistic division, I ask her about my personal favourite piece, a typically grumpy bearded mountain goat with piercing yellow eyes (left page). “The eyes were my father's suggestion. I really wasn't sure about it, but he was completely right, it made the picture. I show him my paintings on Skype and he's always brutally honest. He's my biggest critic. If he says, ‘yeah, that's alright', I know I've done really well. I need that to ground me. I don't want to get cocky.
“And my friends have been amazing as well, especially in the early days with spreading the word. Even now when friends come around they're put to work. They'll get a coffee, but instead of biscuits they get a pack of postcards to wrap with ribbon and stuff into envelopes.”
As the interview draws to a close, a bamboo stick slaps against the window, blonde locks just visible. “Mummy! Can we go fishing!?” Clare barely has time to answer as bamboo is substituted for carbon in the blink of an eye. “You brought your wellies?”
she asks in my direction. “Looks like we're going on a ‘Williamrig Safari'.”