The wildlife artist of the Wolds

The floor-to-ceiling window in Robert Fuller’s studio frames an unspoilt view of the bird feeders in his garden, the hedgerows that he planted to attract wildlife and the green dale beyond. When I arrive, the celebrated wildlife artist is putting the finishing touches to a painting of a male kestrel and informs me that his subject is a frequent visitor to the garden. In fact, Robert has been watching the same family of kestrels for several years and they’ve become so used to him that he’s able to sit just ten metres away as they feed. 

Robert explains: “A lot of time is spent getting the subjects into the right location, especially with the owls and kestrels; it could take months or even years. The kestrels I’ve been painting have lived in the garden since 2008 and I feed them every day on day old chicks – they’re cockerels that come from the egg laying industry – and mice. I think a lot of people don’t realise that the subjects of my paintings are often birds that I know well.”

Typically, Robert will take a huge number of photographs of his subjects, often at high speed to capture every movement, before starting work on a new painting. He goes to great lengths to attract wildlife to his property so that he can study it up close; there are 14 cameras trained on different locations, including the residence of a family of stoats and a number of nest sites. Robert has also created several hides from which he can watch and photograph wildlife. 

The artist lives and works in an idyllic former farmhouse near the village of Thixendale in North Yorkshire, together with his wife Victoria and their young daughters Lily and Ruby. It’s just a stone’s throw from Givendale, the village where he grew up, and, since moving there in 1998, he has planted 1,200 trees and more than 500 metres of hedgerow, as well as digging several ponds. He has also erected countless nest boxes and has a daily feeding routine for both garden birds and birds of prey, explaining: “Some people don’t want certain birds in their garden but if I feed the tawny owls, kestrels and sparrow hawks they’re not doing damage to the other species.”

For Robert, adding a spacious purpose-built studio to the family home four years ago was one of many high points of a career that has enabled him to travel the world. It’s not bad going for someone who openly admits that he struggled at school and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. 

He said: “My mum was a teacher and she really used to try with me but I had no interest. I only developed my reading and writing skills as an adult when I had children of my own.”

Uninspired by school, Robert found solace in sketching and painting wildlife, and admits that his parents were probably ‘relieved’ when the full extent of his talents became apparent. 

Robert credits his father, Richard, with instilling a love of wildlife and conservation in him from a young age, adding: “At a time when people were still ripping out hedgerows, my father, a beef farmer, was planting them, as well as digging ponds for wildlife. He was a keen conservationist and very much ahead of his time.”

When Robert left school shortly before his 16th Birthday, York College of Art and Technology beckoned. From there, he headed on to Carmarthen College to complete a more specialist course in wildlife illustration. At the ripe old age of 18, he made his first commercial sales to staff at Chester Zoo, where he’d worked during the summer, and was soon earning a regular income from his work. 

He recalls: “I sold £1,200 worth of paintings to people working at Chester Zoo the day I left college, which bought me half a car!”

In 1992, Robert exhibited for the first time and, since then, his paintings have appeared in galleries worldwide, including the prestigious Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris and the Tryon Gallery in London. Painting has given Robert the chance to travel extensively; he’s been to Africa on many occasions, as well as the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. These days, Robert’s family accompany him on his trips abroad, and his young daughters already share his passion for wildlife and adventure. He laughs: “Lily has already snorkelled with sharks; in fact she’s always one of the most confident in those situations!”

Although Robert counts Africa as one of his favourite destinations because of the sheer wealth and diversity of wildlife that can be seen there, it’s the creatures of the Yorkshire Wolds that inspire him most, particularly the owls and kestrels. He works in either acrylic or oil paints, first creating the background and then gradually adding the detail, and also produces bronze sculptures. The walls of Robert’s studio are lined with images of wildlife that he has photographed around the world, which provide the inspiration for his artworks. Although Robert’s family home is very much off the beaten track, the adjoining gallery and shop attracts a steady stream of visitors all year round and his original artworks now sell for thousands of pounds. Yet, despite such acclaim and commercial success, Robert is clearly happiest when pottering around Thixendale feeding, watching, photographing and painting the many wild species that he’s happy to share this particularly beautiful corner of the Yorkshire Wolds with.

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