Debbie Harris’s atmospheric oil paintings have won her a legion of admirers. Janet Menzies finds out about her artistic journey
Her atmospheric oil paintings have attracted a legion of admirers, but for Debbie Harris it all began with a love for dogs and hunting, as Janet Menzies discovers.
For more sporting artists, John Frederick Herring Snr was a coach painter turned popular genre artist, and no Victorian home was complete without his work. And Jack Fetherstonhaugh is making a splash with his unique techniques.
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The best choices to make in life are often some of the most challenging ones. When Debbie Harris received an invitation out of the blue to exhibit her horse and hound paintings at the French Game Fair at Chambord, she didn’t know what to do.
“I was approached by a lady in France who had seen a little piece about me in a magazine, and she invited me to come and exhibit at the French Game Fair. I was 23 and a single mother at the time, and feeling very isolated. Then, suddenly, there was this invitation from a French lady I had never met. I was thinking of all the reasons why I shouldn’t go but I knew I had to give it a chance, so off I went. I didn’t have any money and I had never driven in France, but I got a credit card and hired a van. I was terrified – but I just did it.”
Harris’s bravery paid off. “Ninety-five per cent of the people there were from the local French farming community so the language was a bit difficult, but the response and the sales made me realise I could do something.”
Today, Harris is an award-winning sporting artist, particularly known for her empathetic oil paintings of hounds. She remembers: “As a child I was obsessed with dogs. Then we moved into the countryside of Worcestershire when I was about 13 and I started hunting with the Ledbury on a little New Forest pony I broke in myself. It all just struck a chord.
“With my love of dogs, getting to know hounds really caught hold of me. I had some friends locally who were very involved with the Ledbury and we were all the same age and so I got straight into it. I had friends who walked puppies and I had this instant involvement, even though I didn’t come from a hunting background.
“I think there was just something genetic in me; when it comes to animals it is in your core. Growing up, our playground was being around hounds. It is only when you are older you realise there is a hierarchy, but we were just kids playing.”
Naturally Harris began drawing and painting hounds as much as she could, and this was when another lady played a crucial role. She explains: “Most art teachers are very dismissive when you paint animals, but my art teacher at school was wonderful. She could see this went really deep for me and she encouraged me and pushed me to use colour and oils, which I was terrified about.”
ART AS A CAREER
Soon Harris found herself getting commissions. “I was still only a teenager but I was earning a bit of pocket money. I hadn’t thought of art as being a career, but then we moved to Dorset and I got a waitressing job, and the commissions were still coming in. In those days we didn’t have the internet and websites so everything had to be word of mouth. But the sales that I got from the French Game Fair made me think there were possibilities. So when I came back home I took my work to Badminton and Burghley, and these were my shop windows. I began going to more events and shows and was soon selling and getting commissions.”
Harris remembers the relief of realising she could earn her living as an artist painting the animals she loves. “Becoming known for my hound paintings made me feel like me. I was being honest with myself.”
She feels a little uncomfortable about sometimes working from photographs. “I can hear my art teacher disapproving. But I was thinking about this recently. I realised that even using photographs, it is not mechanical, it is emotional about the subject matter – about knowing what the feelings are like when you are there at the time and communicating that.”
Even the great sporting artists such as Lionel Edwards used photographs, and Harris says: “It’s heartening to hear that Lionel Edwards used photographs, too, because I love his work. I am so old school in my tastes.”
Despite her love of the classics, Harris’s work is varied, and she is currently working on a series of monochrome hares painted against a sky-blue background. “I don’t want to stand still,” she says. “I want to evolve.”
Debbie Harris will be exhibiting this Christmas. For the latest news of her show and to see the full range of her work, visit debbieharris.co.uk