Richard Whittlestone, wildlife artist

RichardWhittlestone middle sizedBeatrix Potter used to dissect animals so she could learn enough about them to perfect the drawings for her books.

Like her, Richard Whittlestone is an artist who likes getting up close and personal with birds and mammals for the sake of his work.

If you visit his gallery on the Chatsworth Estate you will almost certainly catch him at his easel with skins or feathers hanging in front of him.

It is how he achieves the incredible detail in the wildlife paintings that he sells all over the world.

Stashed away in a cabinet beside him in his studio is a huge collection of tiny creatures that he has collected during his life and preserved using his lesser-known skills as a taxidermist.

Richard is quick to point out out that they all died naturally and he explains that many were gifts from friends and neighbours who know of his fascination with wildlife.

“I knew that barn owl when it was alive,” he said, pointing to one of his most handsome models.

“He roosted in a barn on fields where I used to walk and I would see him quite often, then one day the farmer found the bird dead lying under a tree and he immediately thought of bringing it to me.”

Richard’s obsession with nature and the countryside began when he was a child being brought up on his family farm in South Yorkshire in the late 1960s.

His grandmother was a biologist and it was she who encouraged him to take an interest in the world around him.

His free time was spent watching birds, butterflies and animals and he even had a pet magpie. His bible then was the Observer book of birds and, remarkably, all these years later he still has the battered little manual beside him in the Pilsley studio.

“My grandmother must have sparked something off in me, and back then I couldn’t have been be happier than when I was outside – apart from maybe when I was painting. There is so much inspiration in our native wildlife I don’t think I will ever tire of it,” he said.

As a teenager the entrepreneurial Richard was able to set up his own taxidermy business at the farm and it was probably then that he knew he would end up combining his love for nature and painting into a livelihood.

“Looking back now, I realise how very important those years were for me as I learned a lot about anatomy.

“I didn’t know it at the time but the knowledge I gained from the taxidermy has definitely improved the way I paint,” said the self-taught artist.

He began painting when he was just five years old and his mother, who was very artistic, pushed him to develop his skills.

Richard was just 13 when he sold his first painting and he had his first exhibition a year later in 1977. He didn’t look back and by the end of the 1980s he was a professional artist.

Pet portraits and commissions in acrylics, oils and watercolours, have been an important part of his work and he can name the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire among his clients along with Lord Tavistock of Woburn Abbey and the Howard family of Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire.

But it is his amazingly intricate paintings of birds and his unique trademark of a small fly in each work for which he is best known.

“I added the fly in the first place to give the subject a point of focus and add a bit of movement to a painting. People seemed to like the idea and enjoyed trying to find it, so now there is one hidden in every painting. Some take a bit of finding but you can spot them with a keen eye,” he said with a grin.

“When I was 18 people said I wouldn’t be able to make a living out of painting birds – but it seems I have.

“I have had a fantastic life and thanks to the encouragement of my family have done exactly as I always wanted to do, which is surround myself with wildlife. I couldn’t ask for more really,” he said.

Go to to see more of his work.

The picture was taken by Nick Lockett.