The Devil is in the Detail
Chris Jones is a master of his art. His soughtafter poultry paintings are crafted in such fine detail that they invariably resemble photographs. Julie Harding visits him at his Wiltshire studio
Poultry painter Chris Jones
There is no sound in Chris Jones’s back garden. There is no clucking or cock-a-doodle-doing, no wing flapping or scratching at the grass with a reptilian foot. Two years ago, though, there was plenty of chicken hullabaloo from the poultry artist’s own quartet here on the rectangular lawn behind his semidetached home in North Bradley, Wiltshire. A Yokohama cockerel called Hiro had the run of the flower beds, borders and grass, alongside Marina, a broody Silkie/Pekin cross, Melody, a young and quite bossy partridge Wyandotte hen, and Kiki, a shy gold partridge Yokohama, all of them named after characters from children’s TV series The Fresh Beat Band. Chris, renowned for the traditional realism of his poultry paintings, could see them foraging as he sat in front of a board in his studio, adding a touch of red oil to a comb here or a patch of white to the wing of bird there.
He initially purchased his own poultry for inspiration but also to ensure that the tiny details in his artworks were all spot on — the feathers meshing together correctly or perfect shadows created as a hen tilted her head skyward when a wild bird flew low overhead.
“I got my own chickens in 2010 and I only got rid of them a couple of years ago. I gave them away,” says Chris, sitting in front of his latest photo-like painting which depicts three Malay game fowl, one of whom is a fine upstanding cockerel who bears little resemblance to Hiro. “I kept asking the neighbours to look after my chickens as I was away a lot. They also got spider mite and creepy-crawlies, so they became labour intensive and I felt that I couldn’t keep asking other people to keep an eye on them. The level of destruction was starting to show in the garden, too.” He looks out towards the now restored immaculate lawn.
“First we started with a flock of Welsummers. They consisted of Shout the cockerel, plus hens Kiki, Marina and Melody [same names, different hens]. They were wonderfully friendly, but they got ill and died. Having chickens teaches you a lot about animals.
“After a break we bought three more hens and Hiro. His tail would end up a mess when he went foraging in the muddy garden and it was amusing to watch Marina, the Silkie/Pekin, who was obsessed with sitting on eggs. She was five when we got her and I occasionally see the lady I gave her to and, although Marina’s quite blind now, she’s still managing to cope and is continuing to peck for food.
“I learned so much from keeping poultry, including ‘chickeny’ behaviour, — the way they stand and how the cockerel would find food for his hens and call them over and display to them,” Chris continues. “If I wanted to paint an egg, I would just have to collect one that had been freshly laid, and as they came in a range of colours, I had all sorts for reference.”
Chris still paints poultry almost exclusively, as evidenced by the small square ‘draft’ artwork of Light Sussex chickens on a second easel in his studio (the final, mirror image large rendition since sold to a happy customer) which sits next to a gilt-framed, appropriately egg-shaped painting of myriad mainly straw-coloured chicks.
“This painting took more time than most I’ve done. The last two or three chicks didn’t work for ages. They weren’t in the right space, but I came up with the idea and I had to follow it through. I’m hard on myself in terms of quality control,” says Chris, who has found his nemesis to be painting chickens’ scaly legs.
“My favourite parts to do are the faces and the combs,” he reveals. “I love the rich red of the combs. It’s such a fun colour that isn’t often found in nature. The feet and legs are the most challenging because they’re so reptilelike and they need to be detailed to be accurate, but not too detailed so that they become stiff and lifeless. Areas of feathering can also be problematic. If you’re working from a photo you can’t see how they are curved or where the edges are, which is why I check against
living birds when I can. I love painting the iridescent tail feathers with their electric colours. When I go to poultry shows it’s under artificial light, so I try to visit breeders because I can see their birds in natural daylight and sunlight which gives them a glamorous sheen.”
The birds in Chris’s masterpieces are invariably the stars of the show, the background essentially subjugated to ensure that they stand out on their ‘stage’.
“I often make the part the bird is standing on arid and I usually ensure that there is a contrast between the realistic poultry and the freer background that’s more impressionistic. I go to a place very rarely if I’m commissioned to paint a realistic background.”
Aside from once using his own chickens, plus photos, for reference, Chris frequently refers to the British Poultry Standards book, avidly reading the detailed descriptions of type, conformation, feather patterns and faults of the breed he is painting before putting brush to canvas.
“I used to go and see the bird and do life sketches, but when you’re painting for a living there isn’t usually time,” he says. “So I would tend to visit breeders who kept lots of different breeds and I would spend the day taking pictures and sketching.” He points to the sketch book that sits on the easel next to the miniature painting of the White Sussex birds with its expert diminutive pencil drawings that are eventually turned into larger works of art.
It is creating the colossal that Chris particularly enjoys.
“Large paintings are more of a challenge and you have to raise your game. When they come off you get a great sense of achievement. You set yourself a task and try your hardest to make sure that the picture lives up to your expectations and you ensure that you have painted all the elements as well as you can too.”
Chris’s paintings bear a striking resemblance to those of Dutch artist Melchior de Hondecoeter, who lived and worked almost four centuries earlier at a time when creating gardens with exotic birds was something of a fad.
“Hondecoeter isn’t remembered like Rembrandt, but I’m influenced by classical art like his. If I go to an art gallery, I’ll be drawn to the paintings with that realistic style, including the Pre-Raphaelites.”
Chris’s tastes have changed. When he was growing up near Wimborne in Dorset in the 1970s, he liked nothing better than to visit a Boots store and stop and stare at a David Shepherd wildlife print, maybe one of a herd of elephants, or a tiger who stared back at him with menacing eyes, or a rhino and her calf in a hot and hostile landscape.
“The heyday for wildlife art was in the mid 1970s to the early 1990s,” Chris says. “It was a proper genre and you could say that you were going to be a wildlife artist. That was the period when I was training and just starting out.”
After showing a natural aptitude for drawing at school, a skill he believes he inherited from his Post Office worker grandfather Fred Jones, Chris spent four years “painting nothing but wildlife” in mainly oils and acrylics at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design.
“My parents had always supported me, but said that I should get good exam results in other subjects just in case there was no career to be had as an artist.”
However, since he graduated, Chris has made a living from his paintings, sometimes grateful to be buoyed by his wife Julie’s teaching salary, with his subject matter eventually morphing from wildlife into poultry.
“The first chicken I painted was a black Pekin hen I saw having a dust bath at a zoo. I took lots of photos of it and thought it would look dramatic in a painting. When it was finished, I was so pleased with it that I didn’t want to sell it, so I put a larger than usual price tag on it when I exhibited it. I got a call almost immediately to say that it had sold at the full price. I’d enjoyed painting it and felt the subject matter was popular, so I decided to paint a few more chickens, despite not knowing anything about them. Then something happened. [Stephen Green-Armytage’s book] Extraordinary Chickens was published, which made me realise how many different types there were, so I went to visit a chicken keeper and showed him my paintings. He said, ‘you’re painting scraggy hens because you don’t know about breeds’, and he suggested that I go to the big poultry shows.
“I followed his advice and ended up at the National Poultry Show where I was amazed by the variety. I got addicted to walking around and looking at the colours and shapes and sizes of the birds and I thought that I could paint a variety of them because they were so visually stunning. It was then that I started concentrating on chickens and that’s what I’ve been doing almost exclusively for 10 years. Sometimes you get a run of commissions for certain breeds. At the end of last year everyone wanted Orpingtons and by the end I knew them really well.”
While only relatively few lucky people (a mix of hobby and specialist keepers) have Chris Jones’s originals hanging in their hall or living room — not least because each carries a price tag that befits its brilliance, but also because every painting takes months to craft — his calendars are more affordable and the 2019 version is stored here in his studio in large cardboard boxes stacked four high waiting for online orders to flood in in the lead up to Christmas (see page 45 for details). He is also working on a book.
“I’m trying to clear my desk of work as I’m attempting to put pictures of my paintings together for a 100-page ‘coffee table’ book. The publisher made the offer two years ago and I need to get it finished.”
Chris’s painted treasures have found their way into homes across Britain and beyond, but even masters of their craft have a weak spot and for Chris it is painting people.
“Maybe it requires different skills and I need more practice, but I once took on a job painting a family and I couldn’t get the baby right. I tried and tried and in the end I told them that they would have to find someone else. It just wasn’t for me.” For more information about Chris Jones, visit www.chrisjonesart.com.
Chris painting his latest masterpiece, Malay Game Fowl, in his studio at the bottom of his garden
Chris with The Invitation, one of the largest paintings in his collection
A book of the paintings of 17th Century Dutch artist Melchior de Hondecoeter, who has played a big part in influencing Chris’s art
Hiro the Yokohama cockerel, whose tail would get rather muddy in winter in the Jones’ garden
Shout the cockerel with his Wyandotte ladies, who were all called after characters from The Fresh Beat Band
Melody the Wyandotte was one of Chris and Julie Jones’ first chickens
A ‘draft’ painting (left) and Chris’s sketch book
Chris has painted poultry almost exclusively for the last decade, but he started out as a wildlife artist
Chris’s masterpiece The Invitation. The door is a copy of one at National Trust property Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire
This oval shaped painting of chicks was, according to Chris, one of the most taxing subjects he has ever painted
Chris juggles home chores and looking after his twin daughters, Lily and Imogen, with painting in his studio