Rodger McPhail is a countryman, sportsman and cartoonist and is celebrated internationally for his outstanding wildlife and sporting fine art. Jane Pruden meets him in his Lancashire studio.
His talent has earned himself an unrivalled position as the successor to the masters of earlier years, Josef Wolf, Archibald Thorburn and George Lodge. I wonder if they had a dynamic impish streak which produces and stars in annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions and makes Rodger such superb company?" Oliver Swann, Tryon Gallery, London.
Rodger was lamenting the end of an era with a cartoon when I arrived. For 20 years, he has been making an annual pilgrimage to a friend's farm near Southport to shoot as many species as possible in a day." It's always been the shoot I have looked forward to most," smiles Rodger."A small group of us, all old friends, shoot anything that is legal; pheasants, partridges, various vermin, whatever is around: 26 different species is our record. The farm is being sold though and very sadly yesterday's shoot was the last one." The cartoon was a thank you to his host. Behind the shadow of a huge metaphoric gravestone, splashed a crazed spaniel in a pond, teeth clamped on to a Labrador's tail (having mistaken it for a coot), under the surveillance of a 4x4 stuck in mud. From his account of the day, the events and the mood had been caught perfectly.
His brilliant cartoons have illustrated countless greetings cards, 15 books for both children and adults, including four of his own titles and various verses over the years. 'The Country Seat,' by Christopher Curtis, poetically describing the superior elements of the loo in a grand country house, would surely not be so memorable without Rodger's caricature of the old buffer, trousers hugging ankles, reading The Field on his crested throne. "Admittedly," he says," the best cartoons have been conceived after a few pints in the pub." But it is the painstakingly detailed style seen in his portrait painting and studies of wildlife, both in and out of the sporting field, that he is famous for.
He studied art at both Coventry and Liverpool Art Colleges, where he first met his wife Cecilia, and at only 16 was already being commissioned to draw illustrations for the Shooting Times. His second major break came when he was 20, from Aylmer Tryon of Tryon Gallery in London, the country's leading sporting and wildlife gallery, who in 1973 asked him to exhibit some work. Since then Rodger has held 13 solo exhibitions: the next one scheduled for spring 2008. He paints up to 60 pictures in different media and sizes and most are sold on preview nights, many unseen.
Growing up in towns; firstly in Westhoughton, Lancashire followed by a move to Coventry when he was five, inspired an enormous appreciation of the countryside. "I was absolutely riveted by what was in the country, perhaps because we lived in a city it held more of a fascination," he explained. Typical boyhood passions for tree-climbing, coarse fishing, watching wildlife, keeping ferrets and a kestrel, soon developed in to a life-long obsession with the great outdoors. Any animal, bird or fish he saw was the subject of close scrutiny, and a dead one, gained by whatever means was a highly prized and respected possession. It offered the perfect opportunity to study the anatomy and fur, feather and scale patterns so that he could sketch them back home.
The camouflage characteristics in his subjects led to other observations too. Diving into salmon pools and swimming alongside both salmon and sea-trout taught him how different they can look underwater. His research, apart from providing hours of entertainment while he collected it, gave his paintings a much greater insight into the actual appearance of the fish. He echoed the camouflage theme in many paintings. One of his pictures of a woodcock on a forest floor is so well executed that many fail to spot the bird. "Maybe I should point it out with a big red arrow," grins Rodger.
With his success from exhibitions came private commissions, both for wildlife pictures and portraits; and with the commissions came many invitations to fish and shoot at home and abroad.
A rod or a gun has never been far from Rodger's reach. As a small boy, coarse fishing was almost a right of passage and later he was to discover the pleasures of wildfowling in Morecambe Bay. Aylmer Tryon, taught him to salmon fish when he was a young man and since then he must have fished for trout and salmon on nearly every river in the United Kingdom. But it's the Findhorn he's been taking his enthusiastic family to for the past 35 years. "The Findhorn is so beautiful and it's a small river which is good for me because I don't like wading in water up to my waist. The gorge that runs through it doesn't reflect the light so much in the water, so when the fish come to the fly, it is easier to see them: another bonus."
Trips to America inspired a great love for sea fishing, both deep-sea and on the 'flats'. He is yet to catch more than one bonefish, although Cecilia has caught several including a 5lb one in the Florida Keys, but he has hooked a permit. "It was very windy and we couldn't find any bonefish so the guide took us into deeper water to look for stingray. Permit are very difficult to see but they can group together with rays which show up more clearly. The guide suggested I cast a shrimp out and after the second cast I had hooked one. It went off like a lorry and then when it came near the boat it went off again; they are astonishingly strong. I lost it eventually but it was great fun, I just love fishing for fishing's sake anyway." Recounting the tale to me, he struck on the idea of a species day in the 'flats' catching bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, redfish, the list was endless and I could only imagine the amount of pictures he would be producing if he had an opportunity. Rodger is a very busy man, but with his affable and ready charm, he pointed out that he could always find time for a bonefishing trip or even a chance to shoot buffalo if invited.
Africa holds great memories, not least because he met up with Cecilia again which led them eventually to the altar. "We used to go to Kenya a lot, a friend of ours lived there and he wanted a series of pictures to promote the tourist trade in Kenya. I did some posters of all the Kenyan tribes, the Big Five and some cartoons while Cecilia arranged the printing. The pay was minimal but it built up. You couldn't get money out of the country in those days so we just had to keep going back for holidays," he smiles.
Despite numerous invitations to paint in exotic locations, not all of them are for huge commissions. One trip to Botswana, with a couple of American big game hunters, appeared to want him only for his enthusiasm for wildlife and his bawdy jokes over the camp fire. Not surprisingly though, he left with an order for a couple of paintings.
He has not always been so popular. During one safari, wiener schnitzel, made from antelope meat, was served for lunch but instead of eating his, Rodger, on the quiet, handled his schnitzel into an interesting shape and left it at the bottom of a tree. When the party resumed their game drive in the afternoon, Rodger asked the expert native tracker, who had the great skill of identifying animals from their footprints and droppings, what he thought his 'sculpture' could be. "Baboon shit," he replied with genuine conviction, whereupon Rodger bent down, picked up the 'excrement' and ate it. He was in the dog house for days.
Back home, snipe, woodcock and grouse are his favourite quarry because they are so wild and live in such fantastic surroundings. He shoots for fun and confesses that if shooting were ever banned, his social life would collapse, apart from when he is treading the boards at the local theatre.
It may be hard at first to imagine him as the Lord High Executioner, belting out his own version of 'little list,' in The Mikado, but he harbours a deep devotion for Gilbert and Sullivan. He first played in The Gondoliers at school and loved it, so when in 1993 he heard his local amateur dramatics society were going to perform it the temptation proved too much. Since then, they have worked their way through the entire works of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas with Rodger in many key roles and lead parts. "In fact," he laughs, "if I don't get the main part, I refuse to paint the scenery and make the props." All of his work, whether for hobby or profit, is given the same breath-taking attention.
His style, influenced early on in his career by the Dutch wildlife and sporting artist Rien Poortvliet, has led him to celebrated acclaim since those early commissions. He has painted for royalty, both English and foreign, and he has visited some of the most beautiful places in the world to do what he loves doing best - painting, shooting and fishing.
He'd love to shoot another buffalo and catch another bonefish or maybe even publish another book. Then, there is his 3-man show, 'Three Sheets to the Wind', that tours the country raising money for different local charities with his two friends, David Battersby and Neil Read. They sing lots of silly songs, some made up and some by Flanders and Swan or Stilgoe and Skellern, and basically have a lot of fun. But you get the feeling that whatever he does and wherever life takes him, he will always have with him, a brush, a gun, a rod, a great sense of humour... and a cartoon brewing for his thank you letter.