The way in which Ian Greensitt depicts wildlife is testament to his understanding of his subjects. Will Pocklington discovers what moulded him into the artist he is today.
Working from his studio down a beaten farm track outside Corbridge, Northumberland, Ian Greensitt goes to work each day surrounded by an array of wildlife, meticulously sculpted copies of which, bearing his mark, are now to be found worldwide.
Using the 5,000-year-old lost-wax method of bronzing, Ian produces an exquisite selection of limited edition bronzes, also capturing the realism of his subjects in silver and stone. From the diving otter to the calling curlew, a browse through his portfolio leaves no question as to his profound understanding of his subjects.
Unassuming of his own prowess as a sculptor, limited editions of Ian's work have been sold to customers in Germany, Denmark, Canada and the United States – proof of his international acclaim. Closer to home, his art has been exhibited in the likes of Christie's, Harewood House, Scone Palace and the Tryon Gallery, London.
But it might never have panned out this way. “I actually stumbled upon sculpting by accident,” Ian explains, the illness that disrupted his initial university degree course in product and industrial design being the unexpected catalyst for a change in direction. It was during this break from education when Ian first started making ceramics, a specialised area of work, which lead to the sale of his first ever piece, a ceramic fish.
On returning to Northumbria University, Ian embarked on a degree in sculpture, also enrolling on the optional modules of figure and life drawing. Despite this being very different to what he does now, he has no doubt that this discipline helped him to become one of the foremost figures in contemporary wildlife sculpture today – drawing still plays a pivotal role in the development of his three-dimensional work. Indeed, some of these initial sketches evolve into more refined works in their own right, and are offered for sale, supplementing Ian's portfolio of metalwork. “Filling sketch books helps develop ideas,” he says.“The better you can draw and the better you can paint, the better you can make sculpture.”
Just three days after graduating in 2001, Ian received a commission out of the blue from the CLA, to produce a bronze salmon for the Arthur Oglesby Award, subsequently receiving a free stand at the Game Fair, where he sold several pieces. Demand for his eagerly sought-after limited editions has rocketed ever since.
Of course, there are further elements that have contributed to his moulding into the artist that he is today. His eye for perfection and creative flair could in some part be attributed to the blood that runs through his veins – his great grandfather was a figurative sculptor who has work displayed outside of the Royal Banks of Scotland and Ireland.
From the age of three, the weight of a sketch book has been a familiar burden for Ian, who would spend hours copying the work of the likes of Terence Lambert. His preferred medium over photography, sketching is a very important part of his work, allowing him to become familiar with the gestures and movements of his subjects, that ultimately become the focus of his sculptures.
Ian used art as a way of recording his rural adventures as a youngster. Among his earliest memories is one particular fishing trip with his father on the South Tyne. Armed with the red-spotted Devon that he had been allowed to choose from John Robertson's in Newcastle earlier that day, Ian was shocked to hook a sizeable sea trout that managed to escape after a terrific display of athleticism. To this day, Ian still has the faded pencil sketch of his father stood watching as the fish leapt wildly from the net.
His appetite for angling has taken him to destinations all over the world – Canada, South Africa, Ireland and many others. “I would still love to go salmon fishing in Russia or after the rainbow trout of Jurassic Lake in Argentina,” he tells me. Despite his globetrotting tendencies, however, it is his home river, the Tyne, that still remains his favourite, flowing with wonderful memories of forays with his father. The favouritism afforded the Tyne may well, I suspect, have something to do with Ian's recent success – the outwitting of 20 salmon, measuring up to 42 inches, in just five outings last year!
“Fishing, of course, is a research exercise,” Ian laughs, in firm belief that time spent in the countryside with rod or gun provides the perfect opportunity to closely observe the subjects of his artwork. “It's not just the fish you see. I regularly see kingfishers and birds of prey, I've had otters come to within a few yards of me and have seen roe deer swimming at just a rod's length away,” he explains.
Similarly, shooting has provided the inspiration for a number of his sculptures. Ian's first day's shooting was on a Northumbrian grouse moor in 2006. “It was brilliant!” he exclaims, “ Although I am equally as happy sat in a pigeon hide, where I can enjoy time just sitting and watching what is happening, thinking of new angles that can be experimented with when I'm back in the studio.”
It was actually whilst stood on a peg at one of the two local pheasant shoots that he helps out on, that Ian decided to produce his first replica of a woodcock.
“It was a crisp, bright, January day's shooting in 2009,” he recalls.
“I was stood on my peg and a woodcock was flushed from a bramble patch. As it flicked out, the light caught its feathers perfectly.” The following Monday, Ian was back in the studio, transferring his captured vision on to the well-thumbed pages of his trusty sketch pad, eventually leading to the creation of a sculpture that sold very well.
With two trips to South Africa under his belt, the most recent being a three-month stint this year, Ian has also been able to produce an impressive array of work based on subjects that he definitely would not be able to study through the viewing glasses at his Northumbrian base. “I wasn't prepared for the grass being so high,” he said. “The animals that I went to study are naturally very shy and don't hang around, meaning I often had to use quick reference drawings, concentrating on different parts of the body, that can be amalgamated to create the vision for the sculpture.”
During his time in South Africa, Ian worked with high quality plasticine to sculpt numerous beasts, from buffalo to warthog and big cats. The heat enhances the material's malleability, enabling him to create sculptures with a much more fluid composition than the temperatures of north east England would typically allow.
“The one downside to the South African trips, of course,” said Ian, “is the struggle that ensues to get back into the studio, once home in the UK.” The 32°C heat is in stark contrast to his wintery workplace that, Ian assures me, during the colder months, requires a tree a day on the log burner and is a thermals, salopettes and hat job.
“It can be a very isolated existence,” he admits. “Just me and Jeremy Vine.” Interestingly, within close proximity and forming their own little community, is his group of friends, names that read like a who's who of the UK's wildlife art elite; Ashley Boon, Stephen Porwol, Andrew Ellis and Vicky White amongst them. “They create the wall decorations and I do the objects you trip over when looking at them,” Ian jokes.
It goes without saying that Ian made sure there was time for some ‘research' of the sporting variety whilst in Africa. One expedition in particular sticks with him and not only because it was perhaps the most breathtakingly beautiful place he had ever had the privilege of casting a fly.
Ian had been invited to fish a lake in the Southern Drakensberg. “We were right up in the mountains, the middle of nowhere,” he says, “surrounded by eagles and some whopping great trout that would grow so big on their diet of frogs and grasshoppers.” Ian was fishing on the Sunday, covered in sun-screen after the previous two days of catching little but the unforgiving rays of the African sun, when three cars arrived, bearing some very professional looking anglers. One of the men offered to give Ian a lift to the far side of the lake in his boat, hopeful that it might favour his fortune with the fish. It was after only a few minutes of chatting that Ian discovered the boat's owner to be our editor's brother, Yuri – a local fly fishing guide, PH and film producer. Both parties were astounded to learn of their mutual acquaintances, and laughed at the coincidence of their chance meeting on top of a South African mountain, 40 kilometres from the nearest town – a wonderful reminder to us all of the platform for camaraderie that our fieldsports provide.