JENNY STEEL  Artists Ian and Richard Lewington

 

           

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THE WILDLIFE ART OF IAN AND RICHARD LEWINGTON

Most people who have a passion for natural history have had memorable close encounters with wildlife at some time that ignited that passion.  For me there were two such moments in my childhood.  The first was at the age of about six, when I watched baby blue tits emerging from a nest hole in an old horse chestnut tree, and felt truly astonished that these tiny balls of coloured fluff were actually alive.  The second encounter was with a privet hawk-moth caterpillar, which became a ‘pet’ for a while as it fed on leaves gathered from hedges around my East Oxford home.  It pupated and hatched into a stunning moth, and a second obsession was born.  It is a lucky person indeed who can convert that passion into a means of making a living but wildlife artists Ian and Richard Lewington, who come from South Oxfordshire, are two such remarkable people, and both are considered to be amongst the very best illustrative artists in their particular fields of birds and insects.

As youngsters, Richard and Ian spent a great deal of their spare time with their father Jack, walking the Berkshire Downs and the local countryside, looking at the birds, butterflies and other wildlife that their father had a great passion for.  Richard, the elder brother by thirteen years, also remembers his interest in his grandfather’s pinned collection of butterflies and moths.  ‘Whenever we visited, it was the first thing I ran to’ he says.  For Richard the die was cast at a very early age, and when he began to show promise as an artist he was encouraged, not just by his family but also by the art teacher at his school, to apply to Art College.  He duly attended the Berkshire College of Art to study graphic design but feels his natural history painting stagnated there and time was wasted.  Looking at his lovely paintings of his pretty daughter I would disagree, but he knew the path he wanted to take.  It was not long before he received his first commission – to paint all the insects for the well known Reader’s Digest Book of the Countryside. 

Work continued to pile up as he quickly became recognised as just about the best invertebrate illustrator around.  His own Collins Guides on the identification of butterflies have added a new dimension to his work, as he has written the text as well as produced the artwork.  Richard’s stunning work in the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland with local authors Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, has become the standard work for this group of insects.  His skill is shown at its very best in this volume, where his attention to detail and ability to paint the slightest variation in colour and form bring out the beauty in even the brownest moth. 

When younger brother Ian’s passion began, Richard was already illustrating professionally.  Ian was greatly influenced by Richard’s choice of career but his interest was firmly rooted in the birdlife he saw on those natural history walks.  He was, and still is, fascinated by the detail of plumage variation and his skills have brought about his role as identification consultant to Birding World, a highly respected birding journal.  Ian took his brother’s advice and stayed away from Art College, concentrating on perfecting his painting skills (as well as playing football and badminton at County level and performing in a rock band!)  In 1985 he won the British Birds Bird Illustrator of the Year award and Richard Richardson awards – both enormous achievements for a young artist.  Immediately the work poured in, and Ian began illustrating many field guides as well as producing plates for identification articles and papers describing species new to science.

Ian’s whole life revolves around the birds he loves.  Trips all over the world as well as exploring his local patch (he is County Bird Recorder for Oxfordshire) help to perfect his identification skills and his ability to paint the subtleties and nuances of plumage into his work.  ‘Today’s birders are incredibly demanding’ he tells me.  ‘They expect every aspect of a painting to be totally accurate, and my objective is to perfect what I do.  A good illustration should have nothing of the artist in it, but simply be an accurate representation of the subject.  That is what I am always striving for’.  This perfection Ian certainly achieves but with an artistic quality that now ranks him amongst the best, not just in the UK but in the world.

Ian's most recent work includes contributions to a massive work, Lynx Birds of the World, where he has illustrated groups including the gulls, woodcreepers, swifts, cockatoos and barbets plus a book on the Rare Birds of North America.  Ahead of him is several years work on a field guide to all the birds of North America.

Sometimes it seems that there is almost too much talent in one family.  What ever combination of nature and nurture came together in Ian and Richard Lewington, it happened in some quantity.  Their ability to see, and then put onto paper, the minute details in the plumage of two closely related birds, or the delicate colour variation on the scales of the wings of several moths, is their greatest skill.  But that ability is then combined with an imaginative flair that makes their paintings real works of art, not just more illustrations for a book on birds or insects.

As I prepare to leave Richard’s tidy studio, the walls lined with every natural history book I have ever wanted, he tempts me with an idea.  He knows my passion for wildlife gardening.  ‘I would love to collaborate with Ian on a really good guide to garden wildlife’ he says.  ‘Between us we could cover the illustrations of all the important groups – birds, butterflies and moths, dragonflies, amphibians, small mammals.’  Now there’s something to look forward to.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017