Suffolk painter inspired by Africa

Painting holidays are nothing new but painting a herd of zebra grazing on the plains of Africa is a different proposition to recording views of Lake Windermere on a drizzly autumn evening.

By Andrew Clarke

Painting holidays are nothing new but painting a herd of zebra grazing on the plains of Africa is a different proposition to recording views of Lake Windermere on a drizzly autumn evening. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Woodbridge artist Mary-Anne Bartlett about her new venture supplying artists with first hand encounters with elephants, lions and wildebeest in their natural surroundings.

Watching elephant wallowing in a waterhole, gazelle, zebra and rhino wandering across the dry plains of Africa is an inspiring sight as Suffolk artist Mary-Anne Bartlett can testify. She has created a unique holiday experience taking artists on art safaris to capture some of Africa's most impressive game in their natural environment.

The days of the big white hunter armed with large rifles are long gone replaced with big game hunter clutching pencils and paint brushes.


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Mary-Anne has a long family association with Africa. She is the great, great grand-daughter of Sir John Kirk who explored East Africa on Dr David Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition during the 1850s. After he parted company with the good doctor he was appointed Consul General of East Africa and made his residence in Zanzibar. But she believes the family's artistic genes stem from Sir John who never travelled anywhere without his sketchbook.

Speaking from her home in Woodbridge, she said: “It's a lovely family story and something I really think is buried deep in my biological make up. I love travelling and I love art and the two facets of my life can be traced back to Sir John.”

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So far she has led seven artistic expeditions to Malawi where she offers artists both amateur and professional the opportunity to paint and draw in the African bush - among the last wild places on earth. “The people who come on the expeditions are very enthusiastic and because I advertise on the internet, they come from all over the world. I had one Canadian lady who was up at 6am every day and she didn't put her pencils and paints down until sunset. I lost count of the number of sketchbooks she got through.”

Mary-Anne, who is developing her own residential camp to service her trips, structures the visits so that the artists get a variety of landscapes to draw and a bewildering array of wildlife.

“What I love about Africa is the fact that once you get away from the cities, it still looks as it must have done when the world began. Everything looks so pristine. It looks like a new world, everything is rawer and deeper and the beauty of the wildlife and the landscape is both magical and familiar.

“As an artist it teaches you to seize the moment because the scene is always changing. It's not going to hang about while you get it down on paper. I tell my students you have got to capture a snap shot of a scene and get it down before you forget it. You have to capture the movement of the scene - the interaction of the animals between themselves and the landscape - it's amazing you actually feel an adrenalin rush while trying to get everything down in your sketchbook before the moment is lost.

“It's a great discipline and many of the people who have been on my safaris have told me that during the ten days they've been in Africa their sketching and painting skills have really come on. It's because it's rare, particularly for amateurs, to have such an intensive burst of activity and such a diverse set of subject matter. You can literally fill a sketchbook a day.”

She said that unlike most African safari tours which spend a maximum of two days in the game parks and the rest of their time visiting cities and tribal villages - the Art safari tour spends virtually everyday in a game park. They also stay in rustic splendour in luxury tent encampments and spend the evening surrounded by the nocturnal sounds of every Tarzan film you've ever watched.

“It does sound very clichéd when are sitting in camp in their evening listening to the sounds coming out of the bush but the reason they are clichéd is because they are very distinctive and true. It's wonderful to be sitting there together, talking hearing lions roaring all about, or laying in bed listening to elephant trumpeting to one another or on one memorable occasion a wart hog crashing through the undergrowth.”

She said they are accompanied by game wardens and experienced guides who stay with them at all times to ensure safety. The experience of living close to the wildlife has proved so seductive that Mary-Anne has invested in a permanent purpose built camp, Thornicroft Lodge, which will be ten large tent-like structures which are currently being constructed on the banks of the Luangwa River in Zambia - just ten minutes from South Luangwa National Park where much of the art work is based.

“I stayed in the locality when I was deciding where we would put the camp. I woke up one morning to see a hippopotamus grazing in the grounds. Where else would you see 100 elephant fording a river. I use a lot of the same guides again and again because not only do they understand what we are about, they are very good and local knowledge means that we can be positioned in the right place at the right time to see different sorts of animals or be there by the river during the migrations or when the gazelle are grazing or giraffe are in the area.

“Being in Africa everything is heightened. You have to be careful, of course you do, but nowhere else can you see lions up close in their natural habitat or watch a leopard pull a carcass up a tree. On one trip we had to drive our jeep through a herd of 400 elephant which we migrating from one region to another. Ideally we would have waited for them to pass but the sun was setting and we had to get back to camp. It's not advisable to be out after dark. We were easing our way through this herd when we came up against this huge bull elephant. The thing is you have to know what you are doing and treat the animals with respect. These are real events which create memories that last a lifetime and hopefully inspire some great art.”

She said treating the animals with respect was an important lesson which she learned early on her first trip. “We have a golden rule that no-one ever goes off on their own - ever. If you have to go to the loo you must always stay in sight of the group otherwise you could easily become the next meal for something large and hungry. All the timr we are out we are accompanied by experienced game wardens. The only time I went off by myself on that first trip, I found myself sitting in a leopard's den,” laughs Mary Anne. “I can joke it now but as soon as I realised it was I was absolutely terrified. I had been sketching a valley and it was getting very close to midday and unbearably hot when I spotted an outcrop which provided some cover but would still allow me a view of the valley so I could do some more sketching. I perched myself on the ledge and I immediately spotted some buck on the far side of the hill and started sketching a fantastic view but after a while I noticed that there were a lot of animal bones dotted around the area. Then it dawned on me that I was in the midst of a leopard's lair. I have never moved so fast in my life. Had I stopped and thought about it, all the bones were white with age and obviously the ledge hadn't been used for a while but it taught me a valuable lesson.”

For those rather put off by the idea of camping in the African bush for 10-15 days, Mary-Anne is keen to point out that technically her camps are made up of tents but they are not tents as we know them. They are built on a base made up of brick and stone with large gauze windows to keep out the bugs and mosquitos. Although the roof is canvas, there are private bedrooms, ensuite bathroom facilities and powerpoints galore. There is a central dining area and a bar which helps the members of each expedition to bond while taking in some spectacular views of the river and dash off a quick sketch of some breathtaking sunsets over the water.

Mary-Anne said that the whole idea of Art Safari was inspired by her own journeys as a student to Africa and to Malawi in particular while tracking the story about her great, great grandfather. “He was a doctor and a botanist and he was asked to join Dr David Livingstone on his Zambia expedition. He spent the next five or six years out in Africa with Livingstone and it made his reputation within the British scientific community identifying all these new species."

Malawi is situated in the middle of the area that Sir John explored with Livingstone, Mary Anne said that one of the reasons she continues to return to the country is because of its stable political situation. The government of Malawi is very pro-British and is very well aware of the value of tourism to its economy. “As a result they not only look after tourists but they look after the game reserves that attract the visitors Malawi really is a haven for wildlife and the people are very friendly."

But after seven expeditions to Malawi Mary-Anne is now seeking to expand the number of destinations. “I try and give each trip a unique feel or theme and I am now expanding the number of places we visit to offer a greater choice of subject matter. For example this year I doing my first flamingo trip which will be an exercise in exploring colour and we will be going to the world famous Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya where all those wonderful David Attenborough documentaries are filmed and we will be travelling there in August at the height of the migration season. “Apart from the flamingoes we should see the great wildebeest migration through the Great Rift Valley which should be a spectacular sight.”

She is also doing a mountains, lakes and rivers trip in April which again will provide artists with an alternative to the life on the great plains trips that form the usual focus of her trips. “I love the fact that we are offering a trip that is completely different to what anyone can get on a straight-forward package holiday. We try and keep away from the usual tourist trails. When we visit local villages we use the knowledge of our local guides to go to villages which are off the tourist trail. Our artists get to see the way a real Masai village works rather than the tourist friendly villages where they do the Masai dance very hour on the hour and have half a dozen huts packed with gifts and souvenirs.”

She said that although there is a lot of planning that goes on behind the scenes the itinerary is still fairly flexible so that they can accommodate artists needs and the make the most of opportunities that present themselves as the trip goes along. The animals don't run to a schedule so we have to have the ability to upsticks and go to where the wildlife is and the make the most of the opportunities that present themselves.”

She said that one of the things that she enjoys most about the trips is the diverse types of people that come along. “We get all sorts of people and artists from all over the world. From the feedback I have had I think it a wonderful opportunity for like-minded people to come together, talk, swap stories and learn from one another. It's a wonderful communal experience. We also get people of widely varying skills and it's a wonderful opportunity to for them to learn not only from me but from each other.”

She said Art Safari was born in 1999 when she was offered the position as the official artist to a British aid project in Malawi. “I was working at Arts Marketing East in Melton at the time and although I was very happy there I felt that I was in danger of becoming a full time marketing manager rather than an artist. The chance to go to Africa came up so I threw caution to the wind resigned my job and went off to document this charity project." Although the work meant working with schools children and recording scenes of village life it also afforded Mary Anne time to make some drawings of the surrounding landscape and wildlife and from that simple beginning her life as a business woman and artist began.

Mary-Anne Bartlett's artwork and works from African artists who have been affiliated to her trips are currently on display at Haddenham Galleries, Ely, until February 26 . Further details about Art Safari painting holidays are available on www.artsafari.co.uk

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