Not all animals are dumb, in either sense of the word. Harry Bunce’s canny critters are lively, often stylish and almost always opinionated.
But what starts an artist down such a curiously anthropomorphic route?
“I was born in 1967 and grew up in a small Hampshire village in a rural working class family,” Harry says. “I was a blissfully happy child but frequently fell ill, and had fevers and saw nightmarish visions. The first ‘art’ I can recall was by Margaret Tempest, Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry. At school I was known ‘the one who was good at art’, so I think I just thought I would be an artist when I grew up, simple. I had no plan and no one to discuss the idea with, I imagined I would be ‘discovered’ at some point.”
Around about 1973 Harry’s cousin Gary gave him some Marvel comics, fuelling his interest in art further. “I was lost to them, I pawed over every inch. Mum and Dad kindly arranged to have a weekly comic delivered, and Thursday was the best day of the week because it was Mighty World of Marvel day. The artists (Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko etc) were Gods to me. I dreamt of Stan Lee taking me to New York.”
In 1976, aged nine, Harry was just developing a fledgling love of pop music and the associated imagery when he saw the Sex Pistols on the front of a newspaper. “The images drove me mad – they seemed impossible, shocking, harsh, ugly, beautiful. I had no way to hear the music, but it didn’t matter, I just imagined it! The seed of a plan was really sown then, all that stuff, the idea that you could just do it yourself.”
And yet the experience of creating art itself culminates in a sheer, sublime sort of peace at odds with the angst of what he describes as the ‘punk ethic.’ “The real moment of joy is when I finish a piece, nothing is making it feel wrong anymore, that’s it, the fight’s over.”
Harry is wary of adding fuel to the idea of his art having a message.
“I think all art has some ‘message’ within it but if it can be fully explained to or understood by the viewer (or indeed the artist) then it loses some value,” he says. “Galleries do ask me to explain the pieces and I’m happy try to a degree, but the truth is that I don’t really know. Francis Bacon rightly said: ‘If you could explain it, why go to the trouble of painting it?’ If the title of a picture is too exact and gives too many clues then there is the danger of ending up with an illustration of a title, leaving nothing for the viewer to add.”
Having said that, he admits that he thinks it’s important “to say something about how we are ruining the planet, and that is the thread, the ‘subliminal message’ in all my work.”
One of Harry’s most iconic images, The Keeper, which shows a badger carrying a shotgun, evolved over several months. “I spent a lot of late nights with the picture and I was drinking too much whilst painting,” he remembers. “It was on the verge of being destroyed when suddenly it started to look interesting, so I decided to keep it. I called it The Keeper because of that and because the wintery background was painted from a photograph in a gamekeeping book, and, of course, he does look like a gamekeeper.”
He adds: “I think it works quite well as a title, it’s open ended. You can take it at face value and simply see a badger gamekeeper and that’s it, or you can maybe see Saint Peter (the Keeper at the Pearly Gates, perhaps he will ‘help’ you through with the shotgun?) or maybe he’s a protective figure – keeping other’s safe? You can go on and on like this, and I think that is how it should be.”
Completely by chance, Harry comments, The Keeper has become something of a poster child in the badger cull debate. “I’m delighted to see that it has been claimed by people on both sides of the argument.”
There’s a nostalgic feel to much of Harry’s work, bringing to mind childhood visits to country pubs where it felt perfectly normal to see a stuffed fox or pheasant in a glass case. Yet by reclaiming these images and reinventing them, Harry’s work breathes new life into old pastimes and makes us regard them with fresh eyes. These characters, inspired loosely by the ‘country pursuits’ artwork of Cecil Aldin, and more directly by work like Mister Fox’s Hunt Breakfast by Harry Neilson, rest deep in our consciousness at a time when when the only animals many of us see are urban foxes scrounging through bins.
“The characters go very deep,” Harry says. “We all know them, and I think they have a lot more to say.”
One of his most recent paintings, ominously titled It’s Later than You Think…, was created in aid of Greenpeace. Harry drew inspiration for it from the rabbits that thrive at Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, as well as childhood memories of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.
“I was thinking how we’re capable of seeing the receding Arctic ice as a ‘business opportunity’ for extracting more fossil fuels – it would be funny if it wasn’t so f*%king frightening…” he says. “This painting represent that – it’s very cute, it’s very sad.”
It’s also very beautiful, with just 60 artist-signed and numbered archival prints available worldwide (20 blue / 20 green/ 20 magenta). They’re priced at £90 each, with all profits going directly to Greenpeace. Get yours from www.harrybunce.com, Clifton Fine Art in Bristol or Cloud Galleries in Brighton, Worthing and Chester.
Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.