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John Gale & Sons

John Gale & Sons

An exhibition of oil paintings from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean by Britain's leading bird illustrator, John Gale.

14 January – 14 February 2009John Gale exhibition poster
See: Opening times for the exhibition and the Museum

Originally from Reading, Gale was educated at Leighton Park School and studied veterinary science at Liverpool University. For the last twenty years he has illustrated a number of field guides to the birds of various regions of the world, travelling from Antarctica and the Southern Oceans to the jungles of Madagascar. In recent years he has focussed on oil painting in some of the world's most fragile environments.

In 1992 Gale won British Bird's 'Bird illustrator of the Year' and 2002 he was named Birdwatch Magazine's 'Bird Artist of the Year'. He is currently working on the Handbook to the Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands having just completed the Field Guide to Birds of the Horn of Africa.

Artist's Statement

"For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with wildlife and the natural world, spending my early years practicing taxidermy, watching birds, and chasing after insects. I have always spent a lot of time painting and drawing mostly focusing on birds. My Field Guide to The Birds of East Africa, for example, was a project that took five and a half years of continuous work to complete.

Petrels and shearwaters for me are the most enigmatic birds of the world and I have spent a lot of time in pursuit of them. When I undertook illustrating Handbook to Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands I was very keen to illustrate the six seabird plates. Sea watching from various promontories around Cape Town provided distant views of albatrosses and petrels, but it wasn't until I went out in a boat 30miles south of the Cape that I saw these birds close-up. I vividly remember the first Black-browed albatrosses flying by, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I thought I must see more of these birds, many more.

In November 2003, four months after my first trip to South Africa I found myself back in Cape Town, this time I was boarding the SA Agulhas to head south to Prince Edward and Marion Island and then onto Antarctica, my first trip of many to this most amazing region of the world.

Since 2003, I have visited Antarctica and the Southern Ocean annually working on cruise ships as well as going as a passenger on various ships. My work on cruise ships has been as ornithologist, lecturer and artist in residence. I have spent most of my time on MV Polar Star, a beautiful ship of which I have great passion. I owe special thanks to Martin Karlsen at Polar Star for his support and great help over the last few years.

When I first visited the Southern Ocean and Antarctica I was totally overwhelmed by the wealth of material for potential paintings. Initially I concentrated on classic icebergs, huddles of penguins and albatrosses flying over the ocean, subjects that, of course, I still love to paint. Gradually I started to look for more unusual subjects and themes that have only rarely been portrayed before. I am always looking for subject that have possibly never been painted, that is very exciting indeed.

John Gale in a penguin rookeryIn the field I do a lot of sketching recording bird shapes, picture compositions, icebergs, waves etc. My sketches are very simple and just concentrate on recording form, pattern and movement of the subject. To get detail of birds, for example, I use museum specimens as well as photographs, of which I take many, and video recordings. I find acrylics and watercolours are the easiest paints to use in the field, however, weather conditions can often make this difficult.

Travelling on cruise ships one can be pushed for time and many of the landings are often only for a couple of hours. I always feel pressured to grab as much material as possible as I might never return to that site again. A three-hour visit to Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsular last March had me rushing in a controlled manner all over the place in a 'calm panic'. There was simply too much on offer. It was very cold and the paint kept freezing on the paper and falling off. Eventually my hands got very cold and I couldn't hold a pencil or even push the button on my camera. One is then left just to look, observe and marvel. I managed to get three good ideas for paintings from that landing, but I did miss a snow petrel nesting in a crevice, what a painting that would have been and the pencil sketches would have looked great in my sketchbook.

It has been of great importance for me that I have been able to use my Antarctic and Southern Ocean work to raise funds for Albatross conservation. In conjunction with various organizations, including the RSPB and Birdlife International, I have been able to gather close to £10,000 for this extremely important conservation area. I still work part time as a veterinary surgeon at a small animal practice in Exeter. My wife, Fay, and I have two boys, Tom and James. Both are very keen natural historians and spend lots of time in my studio painting. They are both very excited about exhibiting their paintings with me at SPRI! "

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