Helen Fergusson's love of animals is evident in all of her art, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
Many would argue that my mum's hysterical reaction to the olive water snake that casually slithered across her reception desk one lunchtime, was wholly justified. My brother had caught the snake whilst out fishing and had placed it into a flower arrangement on my mum's desk during a busy Sunday lunch. He later claimed that he thought it would add to the authenticity of our parents' game lodge restaurant. Like quite a few of his teenage antics, he lived to regret it.
But when a much larger and highly venomous boomslang slithered passed Helen Fergusson's feet while she was on safari in Botswana, her reaction was rather different. One might have expected her to high-tail it to the refuge of the nearby lodge, but instead, she switched her camera over to motor drive and followed as the snake made its way into the nest of two irate sparrows. “It was as close to me as you are now,” says a nonchalant Helen. I am sat on a sofa about a metre away. “It was beautiful,” she adds.
Helen is a talented British artist who had a very un-British upbringing. Her father worked for ICI and Rio Tinto, the mining giants, and as a result, she spent a lot of her childhood in Japan, America, Europe, Namibia and South Africa. She attended 12 different schools, at one point receiving some lessons in Afrikaans, a language she still doesn't properly understand. And at one school, her two younger brothers had lessons in Swahili. “But it did us a lot of good,” she says. “It definitely broadened our horizons.”
And of all of the places Helen has lived, it was Africa that got under her skin. “When we moved to Namibia, we used to go up to Etosha,” she says. “It was just so remote in those days – there was absolutely no tourist industry at all yet.” And for a child who loved drawing animals, it was absolute heaven. “I used to keep picture diaries and just sketch what I saw. My mum always said that as long as I had my paper and pencils, I wasn't going to bother anyone. And I fell in love with it all; the chaos, the vibrancy and above all, the incredible wildlife.” And that, apparently, hasn't changed.
Even though Helen now lives with her family in a quaint Nottinghamshire village surrounded by quintessential English farmland, her continued love of African wildlife is evident in many of her beautiful paintings. As I enter her little studio – a bedroom in her home which, over time, has become her work space – my eye is automatically drawn to a small watercolour of a kudu bull stood beneath an acacia in the mid afternoon heat. It is incredibly lifelike and, for me, immediately evokes nostalgic memories of life on safari.
Helen's father wanted her and her brothers to complete their schooling in the UK, so after doing her ‘A' Levels in Hertfordshire, Helen succumbed to the call of Africa, getting a job working as a nurse in Johannesburg General Hospital. “And I was immediately thrown into the deep-end,” she says. “We had a heliport, and patients were always being rushed in with snakebites and exciting things like that – so I had to learn very quickly. The doctors did put a lot of trust in you, and just presumed that you had some initiative and common sense.”
But after a year, Helen returned to the UK to continue her nursing training at St Batholomew's in London, which she didn't enjoy. at all. “Compared to South Africa, it was austere, gloomy and very old-fashioned,” she says. “I like old-fashioned things, but having come from Jo'burg where I'd been dressing wounds, taking out stitches and feeling like I was making a difference, I was suddenly being taught how to make a bed.” Not one to give up easily, Helen stuck it out for two years, but is unequivocal when she says she hated it. So she enrolled at Pitman Secretarial College and began her training as a secretary, which she loved.
And it was during this period, whilst living in London, that Helen took her first step towards turning her hobby into a full-time career. At 6:30am every Sunday, Helen would make her way to the top end of Piccadilly where she would display her art. “You had to get there early to bag your six feet of railings,” she says. “And you had to stay there all day, or your spot would be taken.”
In those days, Helen mainly did portraits for tourists, but she also continued to paint her favourite subjects. “I have always loved animals, and even then I would go out into the countryside and sketch horses in a field, or even just a picturesque vista.” But then in the late 80s and early 90s, she started to get more and more commissions, particularly from people wanting portraits of their horses or dogs, two of Helen's specialist subjects. “Painting has been a love of mine all my life, but what started as a hobby, gradually progressed into a full-time career about 12 years ago,” she says. “It was only after I left London and moved out to Nottinghamshire, that I realised that I could paint and make a living from it.”
And as an avidly keen hunter, most of Helen's commissions came from people she met in the hunting field. However, Helen stopped hunting several years ago, and since then, her focus has shifted to other British country sports. In addition to the numerous commissions of gundogs, pet dogs, horses and general sporting scenes that Helen receives these days, she is also becoming well-known for her unique, annotated estate maps.
She explains: “By fluke, a friend of mine asked me if I could do a painting of an estate where he had shot as a guest for 25 years. He wanted to give the owner of the estate something a little bit different to commemorate 25 years of shooting there.
So she went up to the estate in secret – she does a lot of her work in secret as her paintings are often gifts for people - with an estate map that she'd got from a land agent. “And I annotated and enlarged upon it. I painted the woods and the hedges and I put faint shadows in to make the woods stand out. And it's just grown from that.”
Nowadays Helen will paint the furrows into the fields, the names of drives and any details that are significant to that estate or the estate owners. “It doesn't matter if it is 100 acres or 10,000 acres, the paintings are a unique record of someone's patch,” she says. “It's their place, they want it recording, and they can have whatever they want on it, from their old Series One Land Rover to a particular old oak.
“What I tend to do, is to paint little vignettes of these distinctive features,” she says. “If it's a shoot, I'll include the game birds, perhaps the owner's dog or his house, something that is significant to them.”
Helen's commissions are her bread and butter and make up the majority of her work. But she also does greetings cards and cartoons, which she soon realised had really struck a chord with fieldsports enthusiasts and animal lovers. And like all good artists, through countless hours of close observation of her subjects, Helen sees the tiniest nuances, which are then conveyed in her drawings and paintings.
“They're always of things I've seen,” she says, “and country folk will recognise their own experiences in these cards. I've seen such funny things whilst and shooting. Let's be honest, ours are very funny sports. I mean to start off with, what do we look like!“
Giggling, Helen recalls a particular hunt meet near Rampton Hospital (one of England's high-secure hospitals for people with dangerous personality disorders) near Retford. “And I remember someone pointing at this huge, high security fence, and saying: “That's where all the lunatics are.” I just looked around me and thought: ‘Really? They're probably in there looking at us thinking exactly the same thing!'”
And it is clear from her cards and cartoons, as it is from all of her work, that she has a deep appreciation and love for country sports and the animals that are synonymous with them. “I shoot quite a lot,” says Helen. “And quite a bit of my inspiration comes from the shooting field. I absolutely love it.”
Helen recalls the moment when her husband, Ed, first realised that his wife was quite a dab hand with his Jeffery's 12-bore. “Ed had got permission to let me shoot the last drive. And all day long I had been hopping from foot to foot, just desperate to have a go. I kept thinking to myself: ‘Just give me the bloody gun!' And eventually I got to have a go. And afterwards Ed said to me: ‘Oh… I didn't know you had shot quite so much.'”
These days, Helen shoots about 10 days a year and, goes picking-up twice a month during the shooting season; her labradors are clearly an important part of the family. Indeed, during the interview I lost count of how many dogs, of various descriptions, we were visited by. “This is Jambo,” said Helen as a black lab sauntered into the sitting room and rested its head on my knee. I felt no need to ask who gave him his Swahili name.
Later, I was seen to the door by Horace, a mischievous looking Norfolk terrier who happened to be sporting a child's floral hair band. He was followed closely by Helen's two youngest daughters, both in hysterics. “When you're surrounded by this lot all day,” says Helen, “it's hard not to see the funny side to animals.”
Helen exhibits at the CLA Game Fair and other, smaller country fairs. She can be contacted via her website: