More often than not, when people talk to me about my work they ask, "Why do you paint cats?"
Here is a kind of chronological account of my lifetime of painting (so far!) which should answer that question and, I hope, will demonstrate that my paintings are about far more than cats.
All children love making pictures. Fortunately I was encouraged from a young age, and have never stopped. Below is a page from an early sketchbook; a drawing of the town of Bad Ausse, Austria, 1966.
I used to draw horses all the time!
Quite a few of my relations have been painters.
My Grandmother painted this cat before I was born. We used to have a tabby called Sammy and I have early memories of gazing at the painting and almost feeling the dense velvety texture of the fur.
This is my Grandfather’s palette. I didn't know that he had been a painter until after he had died.
Here is a portrait my Uncle Jim made of his sister, Auntie Marjorie, along with one of Auntie Marjorie's own paintings of a cottage.
My brother Jonathan Pike is also an artist. He studied in London at the Central School of Art and Design (as it then was), and at Falmouth School of Art. He has been painting professionally since he left college in 1971 and has had many one-man exhibitions in London and elsewhere.
Apart from his beautiful and detailed paintings of Venice, he is well known for his paintings of cities as diverse as Havana, Paris, Dublin, and London where he lives. He works in oils and watercolours.
As for painting cats, this page from one of my early picture books could well have given me the idea!
We always had cats, Tinky was my first. She kept having kittens.
Celia With Tinky and one of her kittens
We had a fantastic art teacher in our 6th form called Pauline Barker. She motivated and inspired dozens of us, and catapulted us off to London art schools.
Here are two drawings I made of Pauline in the art room at Dorking Grammar School, Carol working on a painting, and an early cat painting.
Pauline's influence, and seven years at art school taught us to look in completely new ways. I carried a sketchbook everywhere and from the moment I woke up would be observing and drawing.
Nowadays these sketchbooks are visual diaries which evoke memories more powerfully than any photograph could.
A page from a sketchbook, St. Martins, 1974
Missing having a cat when I was at art school in London meant that before long I bought a kitten called Lily from a pet shop. Cats featured in quite a few of my drawings and paintings from then onwards.
Cat in the garden, Falmouth
L-R: Lily sleeping
Lily on a garden wall, Holland Park
In the 6th form with Pauline and continuing at art school, we learned to see shapes around objects rather than the objects themselves, exciting juxtapositions of colour and patterns, the colour of light, contrasting tones.
I loved the flat patterns in Japanese prints and the paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard.
The most mundane objects and moments to me became breathtakingly beautiful and it was a matter of urgency to capture and record them.
This led to a natural move away from figurative painting towards an exploration of colour and texture on larger canvases.
From St. Martins I went on to do a post graduate course at the Royal Academy Schools.
After the leanings toward abstract expressionism at St Martins, the Royal Academy was very disciplined. We had lectures in the chemistry of colour...
...and we also had anatomy classes, and several terms of life drawing.
In 1977 I had my first work hung in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
On leaving art school we faced the inevitable challenge of finding the means to pay the rent!
Choosing not to go into teaching and being determined to make a living from painting I decided I would paint things people would want to buy in order to carry on with ‘real’ painting. A 'means to an end'!
In 1978, another artist sold me a dozen small picture frames. I decided to make a series of small paintings of cats in landscapes with pressed flowers in the foreground, and took them to the art gallery in Liberty’s of Regent Street. They sold them like proverbial hot cakes & ordered more.
So began the cat painting cottage industry!
Celia with Archie, 1982
I'd always had at least one cat in my life, but in the 1980's I had babies too!
Motherhood brought a fulfilling feeling of purpose and happiness, but it also felt as if I was acting a new role, and that my other life was on hold.
Painting never stopped, but it had to be adapted!
James in his Cot, 1983 © Celia Pike
Drawing from our local park with small boys running amok
Perry in goal
Bed Time, 1980's © Celia Pike
A plan for a painting of exhausted local mothers. (I was too exhausted and could never find the time to make the painting!)
The only paintings I had time to make were the ‘bread and butter’ ones, but working from home meant that I could be with the boys at every stage of their growing up.
I painted when they slept...
When they were at nursery school...
And often they would join in...
I was never short of models!
I sold my paintings at craft fairs...
And cat shows...
Scruffy's Dream © Celia Pike
And the family would come too for a camping weekend.
Regular exhibitions gave the local newspaper an opportunity to have fun with cat puns. By now, my reputation as a cat painter seemed to have stuck!
Towards the end of the 1980's, I started licensing images for large greeting card publishers, such as Hallmark, Camden Graphics and Medici.
This brought in royalties.
In the 1990's, once again, the paintings started to become about texture, patterns and the play of light.
This meant moving on from the small cats in landscapes with pressed flowers (something of a production line!), and producing more substantial paintings which I could show in exhibitions. I exhibited regularly at the Mall Galleries and a couple of other spaces in London, as well as a few provincial galleries.
Terrible Twins © Celia Pike
Birdwatcher © Celia Pike
Reflected Light © Celia Pike
Dressmaker's Cats © Celia Pike
Having kept records of most of those paintings I had already sold, I had enough images to use to publish my own Greeting Card Collection.
This was supposed to be a simple project but turned out to be quite an upheaval and almost a new career as a publisher. To use a cliché, it was a very steep learning curve!
I had to go on book keeping courses, seminars and learn about marketing, production and so on. There was a great deal of practical support from mentors and other small publishers affiliated to the GCA (Greeting Card Association), and I was ready in 2010 to launch the collection at a trade fair.
From there I found agents to take them around to independent card shops all over the country, and distributors to take them overseas.
Thus, painting stopped again for a few years - and when I started again the only ones I could do were for new card designs. The trade was always hungry for new designs.
After a great deal of trial and error the collection is still going strong. Part of being an artist is always about the practicalities of making an essential living.
For several years I also worked on miniature paintings, using magnifying glasses and tiny sable brushes. These were exhibited regularly in the Million Brushstrokes exhibitions at the Llewellyn Alexander Gallery, London, as well as in the Royal Academy Summer Show.
I had become a member of the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists and regularly showed with them too, but although I loved working in this way the strain on my eyes was too much and sadly I had to stop.
The Society of Women Artists had also invited me to become a member, and in 2003 I won the Windsor & Newton award for best painting in their exhibition in London, with this painting of Rufus.
In 2007, I was made a patron of the Animal Protection Trust, a charity organisation for the rescue and rehoming of unwanted domestic animals.
Around this time, I also became involved with Cats Protection, who invited me to join the panel of judges for their annual cat photographic competition. I was commissioned to paint a portrait of the winning entry.
Meanwhile, I was regularly exhibiting the cat paintings in various galleries. I had become one of the early members of the Society of Feline Artists, and was on the selection committee and exhibited regularly with them at the Llewellyn Alexander Gallery, London.
This ‘Film Star’ painting is so called because of an adventure I had in 2004.
Film Star Cat, 2004 © Celia Pike
The production designer on the Bridget Jones film asked me if she could use some of my cat paintings for the set of Bridget’s parents’ house. Of course I said yes!
They needed some larger paintings which would show up on camera. I did have a few of these, but painted a new oil painting specially. Film Star Cat was actually our own cat Chester.
It was so good to get the large brushes, oil paint, rags & white spirit out again - even for just a short time!
The high spot came when I was invited to Shepperton Studios to watch the filming at the parents’ house, and to see my paintings on the set. We had to tiptoe in at the back, and needless to say I was more interested in watching Colin Firth than looking at my paintings!
Anybody watching the film and looking for the cat paintings on the wall in Bridget’s parents’ house needs to be very alert - blink and you miss them!
Tower Bridge Cats © Celia Pike
I am currently engrossed in producing new paintings for heritage sites (with a cat theme!)
These include paintings for the National Trust, Southwark, Salisbury and Wells Cathedrals, and the Royal Pavilion Brighton.
Examples can be found on the Heritage Cats section.
L-R: Doorkins Magnificat, Murphy of Mottisfont
So that’s the story of how the cat painting has evolved and is continuing.
At the same time, however, I am now managing - as I did years ago - to carry a sketchbook around instead of a camera, and to spend longer thinking about ways of catching those fleeting moments in time (with not a cat in sight!)
Celia Pike, London, 2019