No one can resist the Lure of Africa’ Rudyard Kipling
British artist Sophie Walbeoffe arrived in Africa in 1987 as ‘resident artist’ with Operation Raleigh, Prince Charles’ adventure project for young people.
She never returned to live in England again.
Sophie Walbeoffe (born 1961) studied fine art at Wimbledon School of Art, later with Cecil Collins at the Central School of Art, a teacher inspired by Eastern spirituality, who encouraged his students to use their hands, and more eccentrically, their mouths and feet.
‘He taught the use of the reed pen, red chalk, and 4 B and 2 B pencils – all using both hands. When painting on site, he gave me a new energy in trying to paint the air, the atmosphere and the movement of the soul in order to freeze a moment in time.’
From this moment Sophie adopted a spontaneous way of working, ‘It is more impulsive, and creates magic straight away.’
HOW SOPHIE FELL IN LOVE WITH AFRICA
‘At sixteen I met my husband, Piers Simpkin, at a boarding school dance in England. He came from Kenya, he was fascinating and gorgeous. I was entranced by his stories of animals, especially Elsa the lioness, and his life in Africa. He sent me loving letters, which I ignored. I was not yet ready for ‘Life.’
We met again in a village in Kenya when I was working on Operation Raleigh. After a few days I remembered that first kiss twelve years before. I was a different person, unrecognisable at 28 from 16. We married a year later.
I continue to live in Kenya, the birds are singing in my garden overgrown with spinach and maize. We are self-isolating in my studio. Piers is working for the Kenya county government and looking after his herd of camels, that we may not be able to visit for a while. He has made a lifelong study of camels and arid lands.’
‘I was taught to dislike the word ‘technique’ but instead to look, see, feel and put it down truthfully without preconceived ideas of ‘how to.’ Each time I start a painting, I try to forget everything I know. But, of course, one does develop ways of working Watercolour is an unfashionable medium and also very British, and I love to feel an empathy with both those things. I have been experimenting with collage, colour, and abstract painting, one never stops gaining knowledge.'
THE EFFECT OF AFRICA ON MY WORK
'Living in Africa has given me the chance to work with beautiful light and warmth, which dries colours quickly, and provides a very loose effect. Because of the large skies and enormous landscapes, I have wanted to paint bigger and bigger pictures. When I travel, I take large sheets of paper rolled into a plastic tube with a mop stuck in the middle.The mop acts as a large paint brush.'
MY WAY OF WORKING
‘As a travel painter, the world is my studio, forgive the cliché. I designed and built an airy studio in the woods of our garden in Nairobi. I mostly use the studio for still life painting and big compositions. When I work en plein air, I paint what I see very fast, usually with both hands. When in the studio, I paint what I feel and remember, more slowly.'
PAINTING ON SAFARI - ADVICE FOR THE TRAVELLER
‘On safari in Kenya, you are not allowed out of the car in any of the parks, in case you might come too close to a wild animal. Painting in reserves or conservation areas often gives you freedom to paint outside your vehicle, but still look out for animals.
I prefer not to work from photographs. I often think the camera, rather than the artist, is in the painting. Much more enriching to work from our drawings and feelings.
It is astonishing what you can remember about an African landscape, when you have looked at it at length. You remember the smell of Africa, the colour of the bush, the light on the animals and the dust of their movement, the changing colours of dawn and dusk. These recollections and study notes will p bring our paintings to life.'
THE EVOLUTION OF MY NEW EXHIBITION, ‘BIRDSONG.
‘For the last three years I have been painting in Amboseli National Park, guided and excited by Dr Cynthia Moss, the world famous scholar of elephant behaviour. In addition to concentrating on the elephants and the stunning landscape of Amboseli, with the towering backdrop of ice capped Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest peak), I started to become interested in the birds.
Whenever we sat in the Land Rover, waiting for the elephants to pass, it was the birds that produced a similar rush of excitement.
Pelicans, flamingos, ibis, waders and water birds, scarlet breasted bee eaters, and golden weaver birds, I have painted them all. The fluttering freedom and colour of the birds, link the infinite space between earth and sky, in contrast to the heavy, grey and grounded elephants. Birds don’t have any borders, they travel around the world. I love to see the swallows and travellers in my Kenya garden. Climate change has brought incessant rain, but also hot bright sunny days when the birds never stop singing.’
To visit the Birdsong exhibition go to: https://www.osg.uk.com/exhibitions/birdsong/
the Artist May 2020
IMPRESSIONS OF AMBOSELI
by Sophie Walbeoffe and Cynthia Moss
In the introduction to her new book Sophie Walbeoffe describes
the differences between photography and the painter's brush
“...perfection is not truth”, then goes on to say “I find it more
exciting, and easier, to capture movement, depth of field, and
colour by working from life rather than by only using a
photograph to make a painting. By using expressive movement of
the brush or pencil, it feels and learns the passage through distant
mountains, glittering savannah, lingering clouds and sunshine on
the backs of wild animals. You feel and see the animals, like no
one else has. Your picture has a life of its own.” She then goes
on to prove her point in this small gem of a book, which brings the
entire Amboseli ecosystem to life in a way that I've never seen
before; and Cynthia Moss's writing complements Sophie's paint
Amboseli is about sandy plains, crystal clear springs, stark trees,
myriad wildlife, Kilimanjaro and most important of all, elephants.
What better way to bring all of this together than through Sophie's
stunning paintings, and the words of elephant expert Cynthia
I have to confess a certain bias towards the work of Sophie
Walbeoffe, one of her paintings has taken the key position in our
house for over ten years, and is commented upon by nearly every
visitor. I believe she is East Africa's most innovative artist, and
has a feeling for the colours and landscapes of Africa that I've
rarely seen in any other painters' works. Her new book illustrates
this perfectly. It is the result of about fifty days spent in Amboseli
spread over a three year period, based at Cynthia's research camp.
In her resultant work Amboseli positively leaps from every page.
If I had a favourite it would be the painting on the page before her
diary extract, of a group of elephants in a spring, surrounded by
doum palms and fever trees. An egret perches delicately on the
back of the matriarch, and the play of light is sublime. But it is a
hard choice, there isn't one weak painting in the book.
Cynthia Moss's writing comprises autobiography, Amboseli
history, and the elephant story. She has condensed it perfectly into
relatively few words, but she has missed nothing. To paraphrase
Karen Blixen, Cynthia's writing is “Amboseli without any fat!” It
is eminently readable. She has a way of describing elephants in a
simple way that resonates in a far deeper and more meaningful
way with the reader than if it was a detailed piece of work. I
recently visited Cynthia's Amboseli research camp with a group of
Americans. We sat around her as she described the social
behaviour of elephants to us, and at some point she was asked
what she thought was the most significant thing about an elephant.
She smiled, and replied softly “Elephants are kind...to each other.”
Nothing else needed to be said.
Impressions of Amboseli is a joy to look at and read.
Delighted to share in this time of no-travel the work of conservationist and wildlife artist Sophie Walbeoffe, and particularly the fact that her latest offering Birdsong – exhibited (online) as of today at The Osborne Studio – is accompanied by the launch of her book Impressions of Amboseli, which includes the paintings, and is narrated by friend and fellow conservationist, Cynthia Moss.
I’m new to Walbeoffe’s work, but know that she studied painting at Wimbledon School of Art in the early 1980s, after which she travelled and painted before settling in Kenya. When researching her, I was particularly intrigued to see that she is the subject of a book authored by the prolific Ian Strathcarron and by art critic (and even more prolific) Edward Lucie-Smith. It’s entitled Painting With Both Hands, which isn’t a metaphor: Walbeoffe paints with both hands.
Both Birdsong and Impressions of Amboseli are the result of Walbeoffe having had the good fortune to have been hosted over the course of three years by Moss, who was introduced to her work in 2002, a chance visit to a Nairobi show resulting in snapping up a ‘most spectacular painting of a landscape I knew so well – Amboseli.’ Those of you in the world of conservation will know Moss – perhaps personally, certainly by reputation. Her work on the ethology of the African elephant precedes her. Her remarkable non-profit Amboseli Elephant Research Project has over the last 48 years given the world much by way of how elephants live. Asked once what, for her, is one of the most significant things about elephant behaviour, she is reported to have said: ‘Elephants are kind – to each other.’
Elephants are the main subject of both book and show. However, as the exhibition’s title suggests, birds play a super-strong supporting role. Encouraged by Moss, Walbeoffe’s time in Amboseli saw her ‘becoming more interested in the birds’, resulting in studies and finished paintings of pelican, flamingo, ‘all sorts of waders and water birds, as well as golden weavers.’ It seems the birds actually helped her paint elephant, their ‘freedom and colour’ a link between the ‘infinite space between earth and sky, and wonderful ‘contrast to the heavy, grey and grounded elephants.’
Even more, I love that the artist in Walbeoffe is as much inspired by the sheer joy of birds as she is the formal painterly support she takes from them. On ‘hot bright sunny days so the birds sing and sing and it’s a crazy beautiful place to paint.’ While no painter, I recognise this, as I’m sure does anyone fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time in Africa’s wildernesses. As shared before, my mother introduced me to the joys of birds via a bird table and the Collins Field Guide to The Birds of East Africa, and everything I feel about them I see in Walbeoffe’s work. Her The Congregation and Cacophony Tree (below) has them at their most soulfully riotous, the orange against the blue in Carmine Bee Eaters (above) at their most soulfully beautiful. Walbeoffe paints as she feels: full of the life she nearly lost, when she briefly died on the operating table, and ended up in a ‘golden fluttering room’. The birds – possibly every painting – she paints are a return to that luminous room.
On which note, I urge you to visit the exhibition online at Osborne Studio Gallery. It’s the fifth time the gallery’s exhibited Wallbeoffe’s work, though never in such constrained circumstances. Before COVID-19, today would, I’m guessing, have been preceded by a private view, at which Moss would have been present. Even so, it’s on, digitally accessible, there’s a pricelist, a catalogue, a video, and an e-book, and both the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and the Tristan Voorspuy Conservation Trust are benefices of the exhibition. Go see it – from wherever you are.
Artist and Illustrator Magazine
Article by Sally Hales
The travel artist reveals her fascinating techniques and recounts her adventures while painting the landscapes of Africa and the Middle east ahead of her latest solo show...
'Painting with Both Hands' is available to purchase on Amazon here
Paintings of Africa's endangered wildlife to be shown in Belgravia exhibition
Article by Robert Dex in the Evening Standard, London
Kenya-based painter Sophie Walbeoffe is bringing her portraits of Africa’s wildlife, including rare giant Tusker elephants prized by poachers for their ivory, to The Osborne Studio Gallery.
The artist, who has lived for 25 years in Kenya, where she keeps a herd of 60 camels, said the paintings would show scenes from her travels.
She said: “It will also include paintings highlighting the terrible poaching of the elephants and other animals, and how many of the subjects I am so privileged to be able to paint from life are so at risk and endangered now.”
Ms Walbeoffe, who paints with both hands at the same time, said she often uses a mop as a brush to cover her giant canvases.
She added: “Living in Kenya I have been able to paint the animals on site in the parks, which allows an energy and movement in the drawing that is difficult to get from a photograph.”
Multi-faceted island revealed in 'Lamu: An Artist's Impression'
Article by Margaretta wa Gacheru for Business Daily
Herbert Menzer commissioned the Kenya-based British artist Sophie Walbeoffe to paint a whole book’s worth of radiant watercolour paintings featuring his beloved Lamu Island.
He had been looking for quite some time for the perfect painter to take up the challenge and help him realize his dream.
Sophie shares her book with two other outstanding artists, both writers with one providing a deeply researched (all-too-brief) history of Lamu going back to at least 800 BC.
The book is available directly from the artist. Get in touch for more information
Meet Sophie, the 'speed painter' who uses both hands
Article by Margaretta wa Gacheru for Business Daily
Sophie Walbeoffe is the only ambidextrous artist I know. She can sketch using two pencils simultaneously as I witnessed first-hand when I accompanied her recently, early one morning after she’d decided to paint inside the largest indoor market in Lamu town.
And after she’d completed negotiations with the fresh produce sellers over what space she could have until the vendor who normally occupies the place she’d staked out arrived. I also found out Sophie could paint using two brushes and both hands.
It was quite a feat, particularly as Sophie is what I call a ‘speed painter’ when she’s working in water colour, the medium she focused on during the three-week art residency that she’d been attending in November with several other Kenyan artists.
The only British-born painter to attend the first residency project organised by German philanthropist Herbert Menzer, Sophie prefers to call herself a Kenyan artist having come to the country more than a quarter century ago.
It was essentially on that basis that Carol Lees, the founder-curator of One Off Gallery included Sophie among the artists she suggested attend Menzer’s residency project. The other four were Peter Ngugi, Peter Elungat, Chelenge Van Rampelberg and Timothy Brooke who unfortunately couldn’t cope with the heat and left the project early.
Herbert was familiar with Sophie’s art, so even before they officially met, he asked her to help him illustrate a book on Lamu that he was writing.
“I was delighted to do it although I had just started painting in a more abstract style, so his request was a challenge,” she admitted.
It compelled her to get back into figurative painting, which is the style she’s best known for and which enabled her to create several gorgeous water colours every day.
In fact, of the six artists who came to Shela, Sophie is by far the most prolific. The current exhibition that just opened last Friday at the Shela Souq readily proved her remarkable productivity.
Sell-out solo exhibition
Yet having just come from a sell-out solo exhibition of her paintings entitled OldJerusalem, Sophie hasn’t felt a need to prove anything to anyone.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said, having never before sold every single piece she’d painted for previous shows.
Not even at the Wimbleton School of Art where she’d been considered a star student did Sophie have a sell-out solo exhibition. But after spending three years with her family in Israel and meeting many brilliant Middle Eastern artists who challenged her to think more deeply and create in fresh new ways, it’s no wonder her art developed and deepened during that time.
Her return to Kenya, especially to Shela, has provided Sophie with yet another set of challenges that may not seem comparable to her work in the Middle East, but as she’s already been booked by Herbert to participate in his 3rd Lamu Painters Festival early next year, Sophie has many more chances to develop and grow in Kenya, her adopted ‘second home’.
Trade Winds, this our second one man show, encapsulates so much of the raison d¹etre of Sophie Walbeoffe. It is her free spirit the spontaneity and the vivacity of her painting technique that enables her to live the extraordinary and enviable life that she does. Her work reflects a wonderful awareness of life, nature and discovery as if the world is her oyster.
Her painting in what ever medium she chooses is so often achieved from working straight from her easel in any location that inspires her imagination. Her subjects range from sun drenched landscapes to bustling city scenes and evocative seascape.
The location whether to us familiar or less so sometimes hardly matters it is that fleeting moment that she captures that gives us such pleasure and heightens our senses.
The Majlis Gallery, Dubai
I first met Sophie on a beach in Dubai back in the 80¹s, she was as passionate about her work then as she is now, introducing herself first as a painter and secondly as a friend of a friend. That friend was Nick Bashall, then practising as a lawyer but determined to make painting his passion too.
Dubai was not a glitzy glamorous city in those days, it was hardly more than a dusty town with ambition, something Sophie had too. In addition she had talent, enthusiasm, conviction and a determination to have a show in London.
It was another streak of her character that had brought her East, her impulsiveness. Her ability to move heaven and earth to travel, literally at the drop of her hat, has taken Sophie to many places and through many adventures, drawing, painting, observing and totally immersing herself in the creative process as she goes. Her paintings have an immediacy that relies on her not getting in the way as her hand flies from medium to paper or canvas, her eyes often not leaving the subject as she allows the image a life of its own. This liberal process can only work if it is backed by a deep knowledge of the craft of drawing and painting. Don¹t be misled by the freedom that inhabits most of Sophie¹s work, it¹s there because she has studied the technicalities to a point where they can sit in the background allowing something much more exciting to emerge.
Sophie's paintings have been published in the following books:
'Painting Interiors' by Jenny Rodwell. Published in 1989 by Collins
'Chelsea Arts Club Diary 1989, 2000'
'Art for Sale' published by the Guardian magazine, 1992 and 1993
The Week, March 2002
'Artistic Perception of Home', Maison Francaise in Nairobi, Kenya 2002
'Hogs Tale', 2003 (an illustration of Karen Blixon's 'Wambui')
Time Out, Dubai, 2005