From capturing the intense power of a horse in full gallop to intricate, technical anatomical drawings of a tiger’s jaw, Norwich based SAMANTHA ELMHURST is a leading animal illustrator of international renown
WORKING as a teenage waitress in the café above Norwich arty institution Brambles, Samantha Elmhurst would spend any quiet moments climbing the stairs to the attic to watch a group of illustrators at work. It was, she says, those precious minutes which helped shape the rest of her life.
“Brambles had this wonderful arty atmosphere, but what I loved most were the illustrators who worked upstairs. It was heaven, it was the moment I realised illustrating could be an actual job,” she says.
Her love of art was long established, but, advised to pursue more traditional subjects at school, it remained little more than a hobby.
“I think my parents assumed that if I studied art it meant I would get up late, spend hours thinking about painting, not earning much money and living this very bohemian lifestyle. Ironically, my artistic profession is actually very rigid. Even the course I did was very strict. All artists are invariably self-employed so we need to be dedicated to pay the bills.”
Having doggedly pursued her artistic dreams, Samantha is now an internationally renowned animal illustrator, producing extraordinarily detailed anatomical drawings and pieces of art capturing the beauty, strength and power of a huge variety of species.
“As a child, I remember my dad had a collection of old natural history hard cover books and I would take one out now and then and study it. I was absolutely fascinated by the illustrations, the anatomical and scientific detail. I thought it was beautiful.”
Her work is featured in leading equine magazines and books, in animal anatomical and science texts and for the last 15 years she has illustrated all the BSAVA (British Small Animal Veterinary Association) manuals, drawing everything from domestic pets to exotic and zoological species. Perhaps her proudest commission, though, is one of her most recent; producing a number of pieces of work for the National Heritage Museum for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Newmarket.
Her determination to pursue art as a career led her on a curious trail of strange encounters, dedicated study and random jobs – including being appointed editor of a new children’s animal magazine in London, for which she was the only member of staff.
“I had absolutely no experience – apart from making my own horse magazines as a little girl – and it seems madness now,” she laughs. “But I got to write some interesting features and because there was no photography budget, I got to use my illustrations. It lasted one edition, but gave me confidence and some great contacts.”
After deciding to pursue animal illustration as a career, she got a job at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in the Animal Health Unit, where she was encouraged to continue working on her
portfolio by the vet she was working with.
Some of her work was published in the veterinary trade magazine and she spent time with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) where she drew the animals that were undergoing treatment – from flamingos to recovering tapirs.
This experience inspired her to apply, successfully, to study for a degree in scientific illustration. During the holidays she would spend every spare moment watching local vets at work and helping where she could. “I was completely focused. I was a few years older than the other students and had had a taste of the real world. It gave me the impetus to work harder and get every bit of experience I could.”
She has spent the last two decades building up a hugely successful freelance illustration businesses, working from her studio in Old Costessey – which she says is very much inspired by the studio and café at the now closed Brambles.
“For me, witnessing and illustrating the work of vets is in part showing how animals are helped, how they recover and how new techniques are being discovered to help them live longer, happier lives. It is that hope and optimism that I feel when I am in my studio working.”
Having been a lover of horses and keen rider her whole life, she says the chance to create work for the horseracing museum at Newmarket was a dream come true.
“I was at the vets, idly flicking through an animal health magazine, waiting for my cat to come out of an operation and there was an article about the new museum at Newmarket. I spent all afternoon composing an email to the curator asking if I could present them with my portfolio as I really wanted to be a part of it – and when they put it out to tender I got the job. It is a huge honour.”
Top left: Example of Samantha Elmhurst’s equine work
Opposite: Examples of Samantha Elmhurst’s work on display at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art
Top right: Some of Samantha Elmhurst’s zoological work
Above: Samantha Elmhurst outside the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Newmarket
Samantha Elmhurst captures the workings of a cat’s jaw
A cat springing into action
Left: An example of Samantha Elmhurst’s work, capturing the Suffolk Punches at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum