Magical cats: St Albans artist Lesley Anne Ivory
PUBLISHED: 10:02 16 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:44 21 October 2015
Lesley Anne Ivory
A major retrospective of St Albans' cat artist Lesley Anne Ivory opens this month. Gillian Thornton meets the painter whose passion for felines created a global enterprise
Lesley Anne Ivory can clearly remember being captivated by the Roman mosaics on her first visit to Verulamium Museum in St Albans as a child. ‘Not just because of the beautiful patterns and subtle colours, but by the fact that a tiny piece of dark tile was missing, as though the artist had run out of bits,’ smiles the artist.
Now a grandmother, and having spent most of her life in the area, Ivory has never forgotten that moment when she felt a close connection to an artist working in the Roman city of Verulamium – today’s St Albans. It was to provide the inspiration for a painting, Mintaka and Dandelion and the Mosaic Dolphin, that is among 120 new paintings featuring in a major exhibition of her work this autumn, Lesley Anne Ivory in Retrospect, which opens this month at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London. The two kittens in the painting, elegant silver tabby Mintaka and ginger fluffball Dandelion, are pictured playing on a Verulamium mosaic, the colours of their fur mirroring the tones of the ancient floor and wall decoration as they mischievously scatter pieces of tile with their paws. It is an evocative scene for anyone who has loved a cat.
It’s more than 25 years since Ivory’s highly-detailed cat portraits burst on to the international art stage, first with greetings cards, then with a series of bestselling books. Soon feline fans across the globe were collecting plates and spice jars, jigsaws, calendars and a whole range of other catty collectables. And the urge to own one of the distinctive works hasn’t worn off either. People are walking down the street in Tokyo with Ivory Cats umbrellas and sipping coffee in the cafés of London and New York while wearing Ivory Cats watches.
The retrospective of Ivory’s work will be the first in almost 15 years for this unassuming artist who lives with her husband Evan, a highly-respected aviation and landscape painter, in a village close to St Albans. He works in a studio downstairs, surrounded by models of military vehicles and aircraft; she upstairs beneath portraits of favourite family felines. Many have long since departed this life but Ivory Cats never really fade away, immortalised and given new life through every fresh painting.
Fans will recognise many of the cats at the exhibition and in the online galleries of Ivory’s new website, launched this summer – tabbies Gemma, Octopussy and Twiglet, fluffy tortoiseshell Agneatha and black-and-white beauties Chesterton, Posky and Gabby. More than 570 paintings are grouped into 28 themed galleries, one of which – London and St Albans – includes some of her best-known Ivory Cats against local backgrounds. Mintaka, model for the new Ivory Cats logo, is pictured with Lucy on a windowsill overlooking St Albans Abbey, an Art Nouveau design in the glass reflecting the curves of Tudor roses round the frame. Agneatha, Motley and Octopussy sit on another sill, a view behind them across Market Place to the Abbey tower. And Ivory has used a little artistic licence to depict the outline of a cat beneath the painted arches of the nave in Mystical Mural in St Albans Cathedral.
The city has clearly played an important role in Ivory family history. Evan grew up in St Albans, Lesley Anne in Luton, but from the age of 11 she travelled by train each day to St Albans High School for Girls and, at 16, to the then College of Art in Victoria Street. Here she met Evan on an art course where they both specialised in illustration.
‘My two ambitions when I was young were to be an artist and be a mum, both of which I was lucky enough to do,’ says Ivory, who is mother to James and Julian and grandmother to two teenage girls. ‘My first job was as a teacher in Bedfordshire. There wasn’t much marking to do, which meant I could do my own work in the evenings. I kept submitting greetings card designs to Oxfam and eventually had a snow scene accepted. A prize in a national newspaper competition attracted the notice of a greetings card company, but my big break came when one of those cards – our black and white cat on a patterned carpet – caught the eye of a New York professor of fine art, Colin Eisler, who was planning a picture book about cats.’ Ivory provided the illustrations for the book, Cats Know Best, which was so successful that commissions followed for a series of solo books. Merchandisers were quick to see the potential of her designs and soon Ivory Cats were planting their dainty paws across the planet.
The husband and wife have had up to 21 cats in their house and garden since they moved there in 1960. Today there is just one four-legged resident, a Burmilla called Amulet, or Mumu to her many friends. Now aged 16, the once-feisty kitten has mellowed a little with advancing years, but is happy to be Top Cat.
‘Mumu would make life unbearable for any newcomers,’ says Ivory, resignation tinged with a hint of regret. ‘Her last housemate was dear black-and-white Angel, who always had a rough deal from Mumu but fortunately took no notice.’
Mumu will be poking her pretty features into a number of paintings on sale at the autumn exhibition, including a portrait beneath the stained glass dome of St Albans garden-seed entrepreneur and founder of the Ryder Cup Samuel Ryder’s former office on Holywell Hill. But Mumu’s fame goes far beyond the city after featuring as ‘Miss January’ against a backdrop of snowy Central Park, New York in a calendar for Ivory’s American fans. The Burmilla’s ethereal colouring also earned her a ‘peeping’ part in a gloriously intricate painting of Nutmeg and Mumu in Egyptian Gardens, the two pastel pussy cats surrounded by flowers and half-hidden symbols. With details so fine that they’re often painted with a single brush hair, this is Ivory at her most delicate best. The workmanship in the paintings, their romantic atmosphere and much-loved subject matter make it easy to see why they have captured so many hearts worldwide.
Lesley Anne Ivory in Retrospect runs from October 20 to November 14 at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London.
The artist’s new website is visitivorycats.co.uk