So off, at last, to meet Pollyanna Pickering, whose name alone fills me with the most fabulous joy – what I wouldn't do to be called 'Pollyanna Pickering'! – and who is one of Europe's foremost wildlife artists and if you think you don't know her work you are wrong: you so do. Her paintings are spectacularly popular and are reproduced everywhere. They are on greeting cards and tea-towels and T-shirts and diaries and notebooks and ceramics and clocks and stamps and bags. Her 'Westie' tote is a Harrods bestseller, and she is the artist who annually paints the Harrods Christmas bear on to all their gift products. More exotically, she travels the world painting wild animals in situ – "I've always believed that to fully capture the realism and vitality of my subjects it's vital to sketch them in their natural habitats" – and has visited some of the most inhospitable places, including remote China, where she ate slug thinking it was mushroom ("very chewy"), and the High Arctic, where it was all raw, frozen caribou until, one day, her Inuit guides miraculously produced a Pot Noodle from somewhere, "and it was absolute luxury!". So she is daring and adventurous and if there is one other thing you should know about her (and I can't blame you for not knowing) it is this: she is also a delight and a hoot. She once painted the Queen's favourite racing pigeon. A good model? Not a bit of it. "I kept having to poke it in the bum to make it stand up straight." This, I now realise, is why you rarely see racing pigeons on the catwalks in Paris, London or Milan. Or New York.
Pollyanna lives in Matlock, Derbyshire, which is quite a distance – I am not much of a traveller myself; I once missed the turning for Brent Cross, ended up on the M1, and nearly died of terror – but I am brave, take a train, and am picked up from the station by her daughter, Anna-Louise. Pollyanna. Anna-Louise. These Pickerings know how to give a gal a name. Anyway, Anna-Louise 'won' me in The Independent's Charity Christmas appeal last year, paying £1,777 so I might interview her mother – "These people must be mad," says my own mother every year, loyally – and, in particular, encourage entrants to her Young Writers Competition. There are three age groups, and the winning story will inspire a painting which, in turn, will raise funds for a vital conservation project of the winner's choice. (Visit pollyannapickering.co.uk to enter. Note to the winner: I would hate to influence your decision, but little bear cubs are pretty cute, no?)
Anna-Louise used to work in theatre production but is now her mother's business partner, although that may be the least of it. She also acts as photographer on her mother's expeditions, writes the text for their books, and does all the home cooking so that, as Pollyanna says later, "I can have an extra half hour in the studio". I believe every home should have an Anna-Louise and do try my damnedest to tempt her away. You can watch all the television you like, I tell her. I'll never say: "That's enough television for one day, Anna-Louise!". I do not think Anna-Louise takes me seriously, even though I say she can stay up all night watching the shopping channels, if she so fancies. Pollyanna later says she is well used to people trying to poach Anna-Louise. "She is wonderful, and so organised. I go into the office and say: 'I want to see snow leopards' and she is the one who makes it all happen."
We arrive at the house, which is quite rural, mid-19th century and has, out back, a lovely garden with apple trees and the various life-size sculptures Pollyanna has collected over the years, including a rhino, a wildebeest and a giraffe, acquired in Zimbabwe and made from bits of old car. Inside, there are paintings and prints everywhere; everything from border collies and owls and foxes and dogs and geese through to wolves and tigers and pandas and lions and apes and, now, here is Pollyanna herself, who is 69 and, like Anna-Louise, extremely blonde and pretty. I want them to think they have spent their money wisely, so had thought hard about my first question which, I'm pretty sure, blows them away. So, Pollyanna, I say, do you have a favourite animal? She says it would have to be one of the big cats. A cheetah, perhaps. She has seen cheetahs first hand and "they always look fragile and vulnerable, plus they actually purr". The one animal she would most like to see but has yet to is that pesky snow leopard, although it's not through want of trying. "We spent six weeks in the Himalayas and saw tracks, but no sign of the leopard itself."
Pollyanna was born and grew up in Rotherham and does not have an artistic background – her father owned and ran a coffee business in Sheffield – but she seems to have had it in her from the word go. She remembers, at primary school, drawing something and her teacher insisting she take it round all the other classes, to show it off. Later, in secondary school, when she announced she wanted to pursue art as a career, her headmistress, Miss Castle, looked through her portfolio and exclaimed: "But you will never make a living out of this!". Undeterred, Pollyanna completed a foundation course at Rotherham Art College – where she met her future husband, the industrial designer Ken Pickering, who sadly died of cancer in 1979 – and then spent three years at the London Central School of Art. And the first painting you ever sold, Pollyanna? She thinks it was when she and Ken were first married, and were doing up a cottage in Bakewell, and she was decorating with a mohair pad when she paused to paint a kitten on some paper. At that moment, she says, "someone happened to be passing the window, and offered me money for it". How much? "Thirty bob!"
She bought frames and canvases from jumble sales and started to paint seriously. She wanted to exhibit but when she approached banks for a loan to do so they laughed in her face. She exhibited anyhow, completely sold out, and has not just been selling out ever since, but has celebrity fans. John Hurt owns one of her tawny owls, so to speak, while David Bowie bought an industrial landscape from her, in the early days before she had decided to focus exclusively on wildlife. He then asked her to go to Africa with him, as a sort of artist-in-tow, "but Anna-Louise was seven and somebody told me some horror stories about snakes and spiders and I cancelled".
"I have never forgiven her," interjects Anna-Louise. "She has not," Pollyanna confirms, "although he did send you a demo tape, didn't he?" Anna-Louise does not look consoled.
Pollyanna doesn't stay still for long, by the look of it. Her most recent trip was to the Roba Khali desert, where she drew oryx and sand foxes, and she's planning trips to Thailand, Vietnam, Rwanda and Tibet. She and Anna-Louise are vegetarians at home, but accept they must eat meat when nothing else is available. She thinks she might have once eaten dog, in China, without realising, but prefers not to dwell on it. Plus, there are the tours and the lectures and her work – she paints, she says, around 100-150 pictures a year – and her own Polly Pickering Foundation, which raises funds for conservation, welfare and disaster relief.
She rarely, she admits, says no to licensing offers because it helps fund her charity work. What, I ask, is the weirdest 'Pollyanna Pickering' item out there? She thinks it might be the Yorkshire terrier cuckoo clock decorated with her paintings of Yorkies, and "with a Yorkie who pops out ever hour and goes 'Woof!'."
So that is Pollyanna Pickering, whose work has always been known to you, even though you didn't know it, whose name knocks all others into a cocked hat, and who has answered the question about racing pigeons that has been eating away at you all these years: How come I've never seen one in Vogue?
Don't miss your chance to bid and win unique lots in this year's Independent Christmas Charity Auction. Full details of how to bid, and the charities we are supporting, will appear in Monday's edition of The Independent