Those special moments in the natural world that cannot be bought, arranged or predicted, are often so difficult to convey. Somehow, says Will Pocklington, artist Jonathan Yule manages to do just that with his watercolour paintings.
"The necks on the swans are a little long, but I do wish I could paint skies like that.” Twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Yule was made up as he walked away from an inspiring meeting with Sir Peter Scott, the renowned ornithologist, conservationist, author and artist. Such praise is akin to Hemingway congratulating a young writer on tight prose, or Ian Botham admiring a budding cricketer's batsmanship.
Thirty-five years later and I'm seated at the kitchen table in Jonathan's home in Norfolk, while his wife Clare rustles up a splendid lunch. Even before the welcome coffee hits the table, I know that I have just met a man with a deeply embedded hankering for wild places. His art work is proof enough. Each piece tells a story.
Some experiences, no matter how hard we try to describe them, are nigh on impossible to explain to those who were not there: the melodic calls of the first pinkfeet geese of autumn, up high in their wavering skeins; the long, lonely howls of wolves in Alberta; a gyr falcon stooping like an arrow at a group of ungainly, flightless goslings by a glacial river. Each evokes true wilderness and epitomises nature in its rawest form.
Artist Jonathan Yule thrives on this wilderness; he understands it. And, because of this, he somehow manages to capture it in his watercolour paintings.
His background certainly plays a part. “I grew up close to the Essex saltmarshes, and soon became transfixed by the wild geese,” he says. “The mammoth journey of the brent geese from the Taymyr Peninsula in Russia caught my imagination as a boy. Wild geese always have.”
It was this interest in wildfowl and wildfowling that utimately led to Jonathan's pivotal meeting with Sir Peter in the first place. He'd grown up reading Sir Peter's books, sketching the images in Wild Chorus and Morning Flight as a youngster.
“I was 23 when as a result of a hopeful letter I found myself travelling across to meet Peter in Gloucestershire with, in hindsight, 12 pretty horrible watercolours,” Jonathan recalls, smiling. “My confidence was fragile at that stage, but he was incredibly kind and looked at my work in enormous detail – criticising where he thought he had to, but praising wherever he could.
I drove away from that meeting walking on air and thought ‘right, I'm going to do this'. It gave me the confidence to give it a go.”
He sold his first piece at the age of 19, shortly after leaving Writtle Agricultural College in Essex, before then going on to study at Sparsholt, in Hampshire. “I think I sold it for about £30,” he recalls, “which in the late 70s was a good price. I was only earning £80 a week, working long hours as a shepherd.”
But it was by no means an instant transition from day job to artist. Shepherding continued on a contractual basis up until 2000. During this period, he kept nine dogs – mostly working collies – and lambed 1,000 ewes every spring on 30,000 acres of the Norfolk Breckland. “The long and happy hours I spent tending my flock gave me the opportunity to watch and learn, first-hand, the landscape and wildlife I feel so strongly connected to. It was a very important period in my development as an artist.”
Over time, the balance of income between day job and art work began to shift towards the latter. But being an artist is far from the most secure of livings and income can be unpredictable.
“Really, there are many parallels that can be drawn between farming and art,” he laughs. “In farming, you spend a lot of time with the crop in the ground, applying fertiliser, chemicals or, if you farm livestock, feeding, worming and medicating your animals. And then you have your harvest. As an artist, you have an idea and you work on it, eventually produce a painting and then sell it. That is your harvest. At least, that's how I would try and explain it to my bank manager in the past. He was often a little skeptical of my ‘harvest', though.”
It wouldn't be unfair to say that, of the many artists I've had the pleasure of meeting, Jonathan is perhaps most deserving of the ‘sporting' prefix. From dry fly fishing on the twisting chalkstreams of Norfolk, and stalking on the open hills of Scotland, to shooting grey partridges over tall hedgerows, tackling grouse as they barrel over woody heather and scree, or following beagles, Jonathan's pastimes are varied and many. But they all have something in common – an element of true wilderness.
“A friend of mine once said that wild sport is like a fine claret, in that it should be sipped and not gulped,” he recites. This perhaps gives you an idea of the type of sportsman Jonathan is.
He has been a member of the River Nar at West Acre for 20 years, and speaks excitedly of the Norfolk Rivers Trust's drive to restore the county's chalkstreams. In fact, it was one of these rivers that provided the backdrop for a particularly prominent memory of Jonathan's.
“I was fishing the Stiffkey and had seen a fish rising all day underneath an overhanging bramble bush,” he remembers. “ The banks flanked me closely on either side and were overgrown, so casting was difficult. At the end of the evening I finally attempted a lucky cast and, miraculously, hit the spot bang-on and hooked the fish. It raced past me – a twisting, jumping bar of gold – and looked to be about 3lb. Just as the little cane rod was bent double in the narrow stream, the first pinkfeet of the season glided over, calling – about a hundred of them – it was perfectly still. It is these moments that I want to capture through my work.”
He enjoys stalking, too; his most recent foray was at Inverbroom, Ullapool, but he's just as happy tracking deer in woodland or sitting in a high seat and watching the surrounding fauna run their daily errands. Again, his enjoyment links back to fieldcraft and being part of the wild landscape. “Even in a high seat, you become part of the habitat and see so much. From weasels hunting in the leaf litter to owls landing on your rifle support rail – totally oblivious and unaware. These moments give me as much of a thrill as the stalk itself,” he says. “One dawn in spring last year, I was up in the high seat waiting for red hinds. I was there at first light and a blackbird flew straight up onto a branch of Scots Pine just above me. It hadn't seen me and started to sing, but under its breath. It was the most beautiful repertoire of tunes you can imagine, but from the ground you wouldn't have heard it. I was later told that this is what ornithologists refer to as ‘sub-song', where the bird practices its songs in the lead up to the mating season.”
In his quest to explore the most untamed areas of the world, Jonathan has travelled far and wide. Ancient pine forests of the Pyrenees in Catalonia, Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, the Masai Mara in Kenya, to name a few. But it is the breeding grounds of the pinkfeet geese in Iceland, a place that he has returned to each year for the last 22, that Jonathan talks of most fondly. “There are the two of us, my two boys, four dogs and 160,000 pinkfeet geese in this marriage,” interjects Clare as she plonks the cheeseboard in front of us with a smile.
Pinkfeet clearly hold a very dear place with Jonathan. He talks of their arrival in September each year with such passion, and will often travel to the Wash just to sit and watch them whiffle their way down onto the foreshore. This enchantment, doubled with inspiration from the pages of Sir Peter Scott's A Thousand Wild Geese, prompted him and a friend to enquire about and arrange a trip to Iceland through a contact at the Wildfowl Trust, and they have returned every year since. More stories.
“It wouldn't be for everybody – I go there to paint. Just seeing the pinkfeet on their breeding ground is amazing. We stay on a sheep farm by a glacial river and see all sorts of other things, purple sandpipers, red necked phalaropes, harlequin ducks. We love the familiarity of it all. The stark beauty of Iceland has become a part of my soul now.”
At the easel
With plates scraped clean, we head up to the studio – a large upstairs room with a wall of glass and distant views – to take a closer look at some of his paintings. I could see a story, an experience, a memory behind each. Those special moments that stick with us long after we have penned them in our gamebooks. Nostalgic flashbacks.
Specific detail is not the objective of his work, nor is a focus on one particular subject on the canvas. What Jonathan strives for, and achieves in abundance, is atmosphere. A painting that captures the whole experience, the very essence of a shoot day, fishing trip or day out with hounds, in a holistic manner. And this starts and ends with the landscape. “For all of our sport, the fundamental backdrop is habitat,” he observes. “In fact, it may even be more accurate to call me a landscape artist rather than a wildlife artist.”
Much of his work is a result of accumulated knowledge, sketches, doodles and multiple experiences or trips to the same place – a sense of familiarity. And this is important; watercolour is a notoriously unforgiving medium with which you need to work quickly and confidently. It is difficult to correct mistakes. He also works in oils, which, he explains, are much more contemplative. But watercolour is and always will be his first love.
As I stand for a while, becoming lost in each landscape, it's not hard to see why.