ART MARKET / Portraits of a modern Landseer: Victorian animal painters were highly regarded, but contemporary artists who choose the genre usually remain obscure. Ray Harris- Ching is an exception to the rule, Geraldine Norman reports

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The Independent Culture
WHAT should be considered a big event in the contemporary art world is passing almost without notice. An artist many consider the greatest living wildlife painter, Ray Harris-Ching, is presenting 41 new paintings and four drawings at the Tryon Gallery in Cork Street, London - leading dealers in 20th-century sporting and animal art. The paintings are mostly of birds, both homely (a robin in a tree) and exotic (the head and shoulders of a vulturine guinea-fowl), with one remarkable close-up of an Indian elephant and an unexpected cloud study. Harris- Ching paints whatever excites his eye.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the great European horse portraitists - Stubbs, Agasse, Ferneley, Herring et al - were keenly patronised by the Glen, was the darling of Queen Victoria and her court. But today animal painting is not considered a serious genre by museums or contemporary art dealers.

Animal painting is to mainstream art what detective stories are to the novel - a huge, popular market, mostly supplied by mediocre talents. But just as the occasional detective writer transcends the genre, so a few animal painters make real art: Ray Harris-Ching is an outstanding example.

By the standards of mainstream contemporary painters his pictures are ludicrously cheap. Most of the new pictures are priced between pounds 2,500 and pounds 6,000. For that you get a single bird portrait, painted in oils with almost magical sensitivity. As a painter of the silken texture of feathers, he has no equal.

The major curiosity of the show, however, is a painting titled New Ark. Most of his pictures take three or four days to paint but this one took five months - day and night - and is priced at pounds 45,000. His original title for it was Monkeys Travelling to Mars and it is clearly an update of Noah's ark (he has incorporated a small strip of computer paper to underline its modernity). Squeezed against the top of the canvas are two Diana monkeys, a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, a dove, a multi-coloured rooster, a guinea-fowl, an avocet and a squirrel, all crouching on straw and mostly asleep. Their placing at the top of the canvas suggests that the group of animals and birds stretches far beyond the picture space. Only the male monkey and the dove are awake.

The texture of fur and feather is superlatively rendered - as is the straw - but then the environment peters out, leaving a blank, neutrally painted, area on the bottom right. 'We don't really know where this is taking place,' Harris-Ching told me. 'The ground is not soil, not floorboards, it isn't sand and not obviously metal. You don't know what it is; I don't either.' What Harris-Ching is trying to do is push his paintings to the edges of human perception. He insists that he has only ever had one painting in his head, which he is trying again and again to realise.

Unsurprisingly, Harris-Ching is considered an eccentric by his peers. He was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1939. When he was 10, he stole a handful of stuffed hummingbirds from the local museum, dazzled by their beauty and wanting to draw them; he now has 7,000 stuffed birds, or 'skins' as they are known in the trade. Leaving school at 15, he did odd jobs and led a Bohemian life until he discovered that his talent for drawing went down well in advertising. While he held down a highly paid advertising job, he painted his own pictures at night - first fashionable Abstract Expressionist works, then the bird watercolours which instinct dictated as his real metier.

His first exhibition in New Zealand in 1966 attracted the attention of Sir William Collins, a visiting British publisher with an interest in natural history. Collins introduced Harris- Ching's work to the Tryon Gallery and Sir Peter Scott, the famous British wildlife artist. Shortly afterwards, Harris-Ching, to his amazement, received a telegram from Scott which read: 'Have seen your watercolour of owl. Aerodynamically preposterous but painting of feathers among very best ever seen. Suggest you call at Slimbridge if in England'.

On the strength of this, he took a plane to London and was soon watching flights of swans and other birds arriving at Slimbridge in Scott's company. To earn his keep, Harris-Ching started to work for Collins; he undertook to paint 230 bird portraits in under a year for the Reader's Digest Book of British Birds. Most artists would have needed five or six years to do it. He ended the year in a state of total exhaustion and penury; he had spent all his earnings on a collection of stuffed birds that came up for sale at Sotheby's. The auction lasted two days and Harris-Ching bought every lot.

He has been based in England ever since, apart from three years in Australia painting kangaroos. There has been only one significant change in his approach to art - his shift from watercolour to oil in 1980. He was inspired by the thin application of oil paint he saw in 19th- century Pre-Raphaelite paintings and is now a dedicated oil painter. The collectors who bought his watercolours are not interested by his oils; he now has an entirely new clientele.

Many wildlife artists are millionaires but Harris-Ching is not. It is the American print market that generates the really big money - limited edition reproductions of pictures painted in acrylics. The signed prints are mostly priced at pounds 50- pounds 150 and there is a vast demand for them among city-bred, conservation-minded Americans. Harris-Ching tells the story of three of his American friends who each produced a 'time limited' print last year - the signed prints were only offered for sale for a limited period. More than 40,000 copies of each were sold in a single month, representing a retail value of dollars 77m. Most artists, he points out, will produce 30 or 40 prints a year.

The Tryon Gallery does not indulge in this kind of crude commercialism. It belongs to a different world, that of the English country gentleman devoted to hunting, shooting, fishing and natural history. 'Our clients are good solid country people with a great knowledge of the subject matter of the paintings,' David Bigham, who runs the gallery, explains. 'Obviously they like art as well.'

'Recent Paintings and Drawings by Ray Harris- Ching' is at the Tryon Gallery, 23 Cork St, London W1 (071-734 6961) until 16 July, Mon-Fri.

(Photographs omitted)