We interview painter Madeleine Bunbury, who has made a career out of serene, emotional portraits of horses.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a paint brush?
My mother was a keen artist herself and always had us children set up with our paints while she designed her silk sarongs on our veranda at home on Mustique.
Where did your love of horses come from?
Nobody knows the answer to this one, as both my parents are totally uninterested, but somehow I became obsessed with horses and spent every waking hour at the stables on the island while I was growing up there.
You studied portraiture at the Charles Cecil studios in Florence, what was Charles like as a teacher?
Terrifying! He is a vivacious and effusive character, he would storm into the oval drawing room with energy of a charging rhinoceros, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of Charles, but he was always so kind to me and is a hugely inspirational teacher, all his students strive really hard to please him when he came round to critique our work every day.
In Florence you solely focused on humans. Why the switch to horses?
I kept painting human faces too long, so it was easy to transition to horses. Joking aside, I knew I only ever wanted to paint horses long before I went to Florence. It’s been a lifelong obsession.Array
How do human models compare with their equine counterparts?
People have much less patience for modelling, I can bribe a horse to pose for me all day with just a handful of hay. Painting from life means I demand a lot of time and cooperation from my models, human models have jobs and social lives and never have time to pose.
I love the photograph of you stood on a horse while painting. Some of your canvases are huge, how long does a typical painting take from start to finish?
Life size paintings take two weeks of hard labour to complete, being as short as I am, I often need a step ladder to reach the top of these enormous canvases, my pony Peggy was a very patient step ladder that day as I finished painting the arch above her head in her portrait.
How do you bring a horse’s character out in a painting?
That’s the difference between working from life and working from a flat photograph, I spend so many hours staring at and studying the live horse, I learn their little mannerisms, even better if I get the chance to ride them.
Who is your biggest influence in the art world?
Hands down, George Stubbs, I fell in love with his painting of Whistle Jacket as a young child and will spend the rest of my life honing my skills so I can paint as beautiful and life like horses as he did.
What parts of the world have your horse commissions taken you? And which has been the most glamorous?
Flashy show jumping yards in Geneva, ancient castle and olive groves in Umbria, but best of all was being flown out to Colorado to paint mustangs and stay in the most fabulous boutique hotel in the snowy mountains. I have some upcoming commissions in Bahrain and hope to travel to Turkmenistan to paint my favourite horse breed, the Akhal Teke.
Do you remember how you felt when your first piece was auctioned off?
Absolutely ecstatic! I am still pleasantly surprised every time someone buys a piece of my work or commissions me, I always find it a total honour and a pleasure because I really love painting horses for their owners.
Your debut exhibition “Homage to our friend the Horse” has been six years in the making, how did it come about? And what can visitors expect when they come to the gallery?
A whole load of “long faces”, five life-sized horses, lots of little colourful ones and some other horses in between. It took this long to come together as most of my work is commission based and now privately owned, it was thanks to the lock down that I had the time stuck in my studio to produce all these paintings. My amazing friend Ferdinand Reynolds was the one who really encouraged me to to put on this exhibition, it was the push I needed.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring young artists?
Find what your style is and what you like to paint and stick to it like glue. Don’t give up, it’s a really really long process and I spent years not earning much $ but it will be worth it in the end.