This is the third in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England. The series is scheduled to run for the next year.
We’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design and Amanda Ford and Alison Longstaff who run Driftworks Tidal Art (check out the interviews here is you haven't already). Now, step forward James Pocklington of Pocklington Art! So, grind your beans, get that smell of coffee in your nostrils, let the cafetiere do it's work, put your feet up for a moment, turn on your tablet, phone, laptop or whatever other gizmo you use, and enjoy the interview.
I caught up with James on a Tuesday in early May – though given the continued wet and windy weather wracking the UK, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a chilly morning in early January.
We meet at Starbuck’s Café next to Grey’s monument in the centre of Newcastle. Grey’s Monument was built in 1838 to honour Charles – the 2nd Earl Grey. It’s an impressive landmark – a 130-foot weathered stone column, on top of which stands the statue of the second Earl - gazing out over the expanding and vibrant Geordie capital. The square around the statue is usually a hive of activity and host to many outdoor events, markets and a gaggle of buskers serenading the passing public on a daily basis with a line up including booming and soaring deep south gospel choirs to one-man-band-Dylan-esque troubadours.
The square and the monument are also known as a congregating point for local pigeons. Now I remember as a young lad sitting with my fellow classmates at East Boldon Junior School and being treated to a showing of the 1980’s BBC television series ‘Geordie Racer’, which featured a much younger Kevin Whately, (he of Inspector Morse and Lewis fame). The series centred on racing pigeons and such was the impact it had on me at the time, I can remember being half tempted to ask my Mum & Dad for a pigeon for my birthday. The birds in Geordie Racer were slim, quite pretty and flew like the wind. That description can’t be applied to the Pigeon’s which strut and wobble around Grey’s Monument today. Most of them carry ‘a bit too much timber’ and look like they haven’t seen a bird-bath in weeks…But, despite this, James would be interested, because James produces fabulous watercolour drawings, principally of birds.
'Puffin' - by James Pocklington
Challenge is part of life’s story
The first time I met James, was at my second appearance at the legendary Tynemouth Market. I was a novice (and still am) to the market-game – expectant of instant and burgeoning sales - and I can remember feeling distinctly non-plussed as, rather than spending money at my stall, the legions of market-goers just trundled past, in an almost zombified state.
Somewhere in the middle of my melancholy that day, James popped over from his stall to say hello and as we chatted he was full of suggestions and helpful nuggets of advice. As the conversation continued, he offered recommendations about other possible markets that might be a good fit for my artwork. I began to see the markets in a different light…understanding then that they aren’t all about selling high volumes of your work (though it’s great if you can) but for a chap new to the game so to speak – the markets are a testing and proving ground for your work.
James is a few years ahead of me having ventured out into the small-business world on a part-time basis in 2016 and then full-time in early 2017 after leaving a civilian role in the North Yorkshire Police Force for whom he had worked for 9-years. James has fond memories of the Force and explains that they were very supportive during a challenging time.
‘I have Cystic Fibrosis (a genetic disorder affecting over 10,000 people in the UK). My parents and family had hoped that as I got older, advances in medicine would mean that it wouldn’t affect me too badly. However, 5-years ago, my lung capacity was down to just 25%. It was so bad that I had to have an Oxygen tank with a concentrator and a long tube connected to me all the time and if I wanted to go out I would have to take the tank with me. So, I had to have a lung transplant. The operation took 9 hours, they pretty much chop you in half – and I was then in hospital for 19-days and in recovery for a further 6-months. Throughout this time the Police were just fantastic with me’.
Life throws up these challenges, moments of severe testing. Just type ‘life challenge quotes’ into Google and you’ll see reams of quotes like; ‘when life gets harder, challenge yourself to be stronger’. Of course, there's truth in such sentiments, but as is so often the case, the words and quotes fall some significant distance short of shedding any light on how difficult it actually is to face these types of obstacles in our lives. But for James, there was a focus on his artwork which helped to pull him through and provide the promise of a brighter day. He remained with the Police for a further 3 years‘as a way of saying thank you for their support’ and then stepped out into the unknown, setting up his own art business.
Of Rivers and hills and streams
But, we’ve got ahead of ourselves.
It was Agatha Christie who said that ‘the past is the father of the present’ – and in looking at James’s impressive portfolio of fine-art watercolour pieces spanning a plethora of bird species I’m curious to understand where this love for birdlife and wildlife originated.
‘I grew up in Bedale, in Rural North Yorkshire, on the edge of the Dales. Our estate looked out onto fields and we had an unspoilt view – about 10-miles – to the market town of Richmond. It might sound cliched, but it was an idyllic rural upbringing. We roamed around the fields, streams and rivers of the local area making dens, exploring and collecting things like jam-jars of frogspawn. Summer days were pretty much; out at 9am, back to throw down a bit of lunch, and then out again until late evening. Masham (home of the Black Sheep Brewery, where James worked briefly as a teenager) and Leyburn were favourite haunts. It’s these early days that instilled in me a love for wildlife’.
Listening to James reminiscing it’s hard not to equate his childhood to something right out of an Enid Blyton novel filled with adventure, exploration and discovery. And, just as in Blyton’s novels, it was James’ Mum who played a key role in cultivating his love for nature and the great outdoors.
‘My mum’s family hails from Malton (another typically picturesque North Yorkshire town) and she used to do nature studies with us when we were younger. She was always very creative and so as kids we were always drawing, painting or crafting’.
'Shag' - By James Pocklington
So, a rural upbringing, a creative maternal influence and, just on his doorstep, Thorp Perrow Arboretum – a fabulous estate which houses amongst other things a Bird of Prey and Mammal Centre. I’ve been there a few times, most recently enjoying a ‘Hawk & Owl Experience’ with my Dad – which I can heartily recommend. ‘It’s a beautiful place, especially in the Autumn when the Japanese Maple come out’ James says.
The links to the past in James artwork don’t end there: ‘My uncle was a Steel fabricator and he had access to rotring isograph pens –which are incredibly fine – and he could get me them at trade price. For a 12-year old this was just fantastic. I would get the pens and then just pour over things and draw all sorts – military figures, knights, wildlife’.
These early influences combined to instil in James a love for Art which he pursued through his early schooling in Bedale and Northallerton, though first time round his A-levels didn’t go too smoothly; ‘I got a ‘D’ in Art. Let’s just say that I had too many distractions typical of any 17-year-old. So, because of that I did an Art Foundation at QE 6th Form College in Darlington which was brilliant and taught me lots of different art techniques’.
By this stage in his artistic development James was starting to focus on highly technical and detailed drawings of characters for film, TV or computer games, ‘by then I was using fine marker pens – letracet markers - with alcohol-based ink. They laid down really flat colours, which were just great for graphic design work’, James explains ‘and so I started doing detailed character drawings and have subsequently moved on to model making and painting’.
Having excelled in his Foundation Year he went to Teesside University where he studied computer games design achieving a ‘solid 2:1…despite further distractions’.
'Small Lighthouse' - By James Pocklington
A love of Art – does not an artist make! (at least initially that is)
As we go through this series of interviews with local artists and artisans, I’m always keen to explore not just the origins of the creative talent, but also, how our artists and artisans initially started out in their creative adventures – because the creative industries are notoriously difficult to thrive in.
James’ background I suppose follows a more conventional and traditional academic, artistic route – pursuing art through GCSE, A-level and then University – but it’s apparent that once he completed his University degree, the next steps were not conducive to a progression into as an artist, or, a career working for a creative business.
‘I had virtually no serious careers advice. There was no real contemplation of setting up as an artist because I didn’t know where to start or how I would go about doing it’ James says, ‘and as I progressed through my Uni course, I felt that I didn’t want to go into the computer video games industry because at that time – you were expected to be multi-skilled and have an aptitude for animation, 3D modelling and other things aside from drawing and designing per say. Those aspects didn’t interest me. So, when I left Uni, I floundered a little bit’.
Equating this to my experience of finding work post my University Degree in Quantity Surveying – it’s like chalk and cheese. For me, the University had established links with potential employers and part of the degree focussed on taking the next steps into a career – but it seems that if you want to set up as an Artist the support around setting up a small business is limited.
So, James ‘fell into a job’ and continued to develop his artistic talents part time and by creating gifts for friends in his spare time. ‘I haven’t actually been painting in my current style for very long – maybe for 3 years. I was actually doing these paintings in an earlier style (a prototype I suppose) as gifts – and one of our close friends said – you should start thinking about doing something more (commercial). She liked my work so much that she very generously gave me some money to purchase stock and get started’.
It seems wrong that for a creative talent to flourish it needs this kind of intervention – especially after journeying through the traditional artistic academic pathways.
'Small Plover' - By James Pocklington
Schoolboy Errors and David Copperfield
Happily though, James is now a good distance into this next chapter in his life – and I’m interested to understand, aside from the generous support of his friend – what else influenced both his decision to step out into the unknown and his current and developing style of artwork.
‘Well, I didn’t want to get to a point where I reached my mid-fifties and then decided to ‘give art a go’ you know. That outlook that says ‘oh, I’ll give my artwork a go when I’m retired’. I love doing it and the point is that by giving it a go now, in my thirties, if it isn’t viable, I can always go and get an office job. So – I saw the chance to give it a try – and luckily from a financial point of view now it’s not like we are absolutely relying on my income from my Art.’
It’s a great position to be in, in many senses – but it’s certainly taken time and emerged out of some pretty exceptional life challenges. And starting out in this chapter James is quick to point out that He’s made plenty of schoolboy errors; ‘You get lulled into ordering high volumes of stock because the unit price per item reduces if you bulk buy – which is fine – but I’ve still got stock that I bought when I’d just started that I can’t sell – so you live and learn’.
These early errors made James a great deal more cautious in his approach to running the business; ‘Now, we only try to take small financial hits in terms of buying stock that doesn’t pay back. Even now, I find myself over cautious. So, at our last event, in Alexandra Palace in London, we actually ran out of stock, which is great in one sense, but then you think – well if I had had that stock with me – I would have made more money’.
At this point in the interview, we begin to chat – like two seasoned, world-weary businessmen – about the need to be frugal and careful with our money! Well – James is a Yorkshireman after all! But – joking aside – setting up your own business does sharpen the focus on your personal and business finances:
‘A lot of people (me included) when you are a bit bored – the temptation is to go out – or surf the internet and just spend money – we are almost trained to do it by the society we live in. We convince ourselves that we ‘need’ things – when actually we only ‘want’ them. We are all consumers, and when I was working and had a wage going into my account every month I didn’t really think about what I spent my money on – but now I’m much more cautious’.
This rings true for me too – you start to focus on the unit production cost of everything. For instance, the minutiae of what it takes to develop an Art Card. The cost of the card, the printing, the packaging, the postage, the branding. And then (as if turning subtly into all our mothers and fathers) you start to compare the cost of everyday consumables to the products you are developing and selling, saying things like; ‘That Starbucks coffee is equivalent to the sale of one of my Art Cards’!
Everything has a price – and when you are running your own business – that price inevitably links back in some way to the financial running and management of that business – and essentially making sure that your income exceeds your expenditure. It is the mantra of Wilkins Micawber, that most excellent of Dickens characters in David Copperfield:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Of Kingfishers, Robins and Crows
We remain on this particular subject for some time, before we focus once more on James’ passion – his artwork.
‘In terms of my subject matter and my style, well I’ve always been creative. Key artistic influences in my early career were the Japanese wood cut artists – Hokusai and Hiroshige. I just loved the colours, composition and balance of their work. So, I try and find a little of that balance in my work. I started to develop initially quite flat drawings and then adding the watercolour which I find provides that depth and balance. I started to revisit earlier drawings and develop them. When I’m drawing I tend to gather lots of reference information, largely from the internet, and then sketch to familiarise myself with the shape – and then I pose the piece myself’.
'Kingfisher' - By James Pocklington
And just as I always seek to find the character in the animals that I draw – searching for the sparkle in the eye, or the tilt of the head – so James is trying to find the same in his work. ‘You have to capture the character of the piece. I can draw a bird – and you have to ask – is the character coming through? With birds – you are trying to find the personification. For instance, when we think of a Magpie, we might think; crafty, thieving, aggressive to other birds – so I have to think; how can I show that in my drawings?’
I ask James which of his portfolio goes down well with his customers? Which pieces are his bestsellers and his response possibly won’t surprise you:
‘By far and away, we sell most prints and cards of the Kingfisher. It’s a very recognisable bird, and (perhaps I’m over-analysing here a little but) going into colour theory – it has contrasting colours – orange and teal for instance which may be attractive to folk. After that, the Robin and the Blue Tit are always very popular’.
What’s interesting here is the emotional attachment that James’ customers have to the birds that they love – Anglers for instance have a particular affection for the Kingfisher. Whereas (another of James’ bestsellers) the Robin inspires both love and loathing. ‘There is lots superstition around the Robin. I’ve talked to customers who tell me they find a connection with lost loved ones through the Robin. On the flip-side, down in Staithes, one lady in her 90’s wouldn’t even speak the word ‘Robin’ because she had such an objection to it – on what grounds I’m not sure.’
For my part, the Blue Tit is a bird that means a great deal to me – so much so that I purchased one of James’ brilliant bird-species mugs with the Blue Tit perched resplendently on it. It’s special to me because it reminds me of my Grandad. He was an avid ‘twitcher’ and used to disappear with his binoculars and his Daily Mail to a local Nature Reserve to watch the birds he so loved. Art can preserve those memories for us in a single image.
'Blue Tit' - By James Pocklington
And so, to the future…
As we draw the interview to a close, I’m keen to know what the next 12-months holds in store for James and Pocklington Art. And it’s clear that James is applying the learning that he’s amassed since starting the business a few years ago. It’s all about incremental growth.
‘This year we are trying more larger scale markets. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be doing the local markets that we love like Tynemouth – but for the business to grow and to allow me to carry on doing what I love - we need to be at the places where people will spend money on artwork. So, for instance, we’re off to Countryfile Live by Blenheim palace. It’s a huge financial outlay – but we have to be at the places where people will go to spend their money! For instance, we’ve done really well at Alexandra Palace, so we’ll definitely be doing that again. At the bigger events and trade fairs you just never know when a big name may attend, see you and like you.’
In addition to casting the net wider and bigger to take in more markets, trade fairs and events in different locations (mainly down South) James’ focus is also on making headway in getting his work placed in galleries and stockists. ‘The big aim is to work up our confidence, putting in the footwork and getting out there. The galleries won’t come to you. You have to get out there and push yourself and I’m not naturally pushy – so that presents quite a hurdle’.
But James has already overcome many larger and significantly harder hurdles, and so I can’t help but think that it’ll only be a matter of time before you begin to see more and more of the Kingfisher, the Blue-tit and the Robin strutting their stuff in the galleries and shops of the North East and further afield.
Where to see more of Pocklington Art
If you’d like to check out James’ Art’s work, you can him them in the following places:
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/pocklingtonart/
Instagram - @Pocklington_art
Markets – You can find James at his stall at Tynemouth Market most weekends.