“Birds are a constant source of nature” – how the natural world inspires printmaker Angela Harding
Though you may not know Angela Harding’s name, you’ll almost certainly recognise her work. Her vibrant images of British countryside – sparrows in flight, terns at sea, leaping hares, a bounding fox – can be found on tea towels, jigsaw puzzles, notebooks and calendars.
They adorn the covers of countless books, from illustrated RSPB guides to poetry by Ted Hughes, not to mention the award-winning memoir The Salt Path and the murder mysteries of PD James.
Only now, at 62, has Angela begun to produce books of her own. The first, A Year Unfolding, charts the seasons as seen from her garden studio in Rutland and from the small wooden boat she and her husband keep in Suffolk. Her second, Wild Light, charts the changing light over 24 hours in 70 evocative illustrations.
These are books to treasure, and Angela is now planning her third, at work in her studio, one eye on February outside her window.
At this time of year, she loves to watch the gangs of fieldfares and redwings that fly in from Scandinavia to overwinter in Britain, landing in the fields beyond the studio. Sometimes, when there’s snow on the ground, they’ll venture into Angela’s garden to eat the apples from her trees.
“Snowdrops, crocuses, and my favourite flower, the hellebores, are making their appearance,” she says. “Rooks and crows are gathering in the high treetops. There’s a nice myth that Valentine’s Day stems from the date that birds start to think about nesting.”
Meanwhile, in her office next door, staff are busy dispatching the orders for merchandise that have come in on her website. With four people ‘on the books’, and others employed as and when needed, Angela heads a thriving enterprise, and it’s a story of late-life success.
“I call my career ‘Part A’ and ‘Part B’,” she says. “For years I didn’t earn more than £10,000. If you told me in my twenties that I’d be doing this one day, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
It all began with a love of nature. As a child, she collected feathers. As a teenager, her walls were plastered with bird posters.
One of three sisters (also now artists), their mother was a pottery teacher, their father a headmaster and the family moved around, living in the countryside of Staffordshire, North Yorkshire and Shropshire.
“We did lots of walking and were probably thrown out in the garden a lot,” she says. “I think the fascination with birds comes from the beauty of their form really, that sense of flight and energy that I’m still trying to get into my work to this day.
“They’re a constant source of nature, wherever you live. I’ve always loved how birdsong adds to your day and I’ve always loved finding out about them. That’s never changed.”
After studying for a fine art degree at Leicester Polytechnic, Angela spent much of her twenties travelling – she cycled 3,000 miles of British coastline and also lived in Bangladesh on a volunteer placement.
“People often ask, ‘Do you ever run out of ideas?’,” she says. “In that formative time when I was much fitter, I went to a lot of places, saw a lot of things and I still feed off that today.”
Marriage and two children followed. She took a part-time master’s degree, specialising in printmaking when her daughter was a baby, which enabled her to teach, and she also worked with a small art charity, Leicester Print Workshop, eventually becoming director.
It wasn’t until her divorce in her mid-forties that Angela gave herself a deadline. Sharing custody of her teenage children with her husband, who lived close by, Angela moved to a small terrace in Wing, a village in Rutland, England’s smallest county.
She used her divorce settlement to build a garden studio then gave up her jobs and paid herself a wage. “I gave myself six months to get back into the groove and make art and six months to approach galleries,” she says. “If I wasn’t earning money after that, I’d have to get another job.
“Being older made me more able to talk to people. If a gallery didn’t like my work, I’d ask why. I think listening and taking on board the points made is more difficult when you’re younger.”
When one gallery told her that her prints were too “dour” and needed more colour, Angela began screen printing.
Her images are first cut onto a block with a sharp chisel, then ink is applied with a roller to the block’s surface, usually to print in black. Then she uses silkscreen printing to create the colour areas – essentially stencils cut by hand.
The vivid, vibrant results led to more interest, more exhibitions, then later the move into merchandise and commissions for book covers.
“I’d learned to approach an art career as a project rather than something you like to do,” she says. “I am quite good at being a businesswoman, but I didn’t discover that until later in life. I think that’s about confidence.”
Clearly though, Angela isn’t motivated by the trappings of wealth. She has remained in that modest home, which was originally built as social housing.
Once it was a tight fit with Angela, her two teenage children, her second husband Mark, and his two children. Now the youngsters have all flown the nest – though there’s usually a whippet or two around now as well.
The couple met 18 years ago while cycling around Rutland Water. Mark, a carpenter, built the garden office and frames her pictures. “We were an older couple meeting, but it was the most romantic thing that ever happened to me,” she says.
“There’s no better way to observe wildlife than from the back of a boat”
Much of Angela’s work is inspired by shared time on their wooden boat, which has been to France, the Shetlands, the Channel Islands and all around the UK.
“Mark is the sailor,” she says. “He gets it to places, and I go out and meet him. There’s no better way to observe wildlife than from the back of a boat, sketch book in hand.”
Living in such close proximity presents no problems. “We much prefer a small space,” she says. “It’s actually really calming to just have a bunk, a kettle and one pan instead of all the stuff we surround ourselves with. The house is pretty similar. It sounds very hippieish, but ‘stuff’ doesn’t make me happy. Puppies do!”
Whippets and sighthounds often appear in her images, bursting with ethereal grace, especially her first sighthound, Syd.
Angela and Mark have just welcomed a new whippet puppy, Oaty, into their home. “Puppy and my art and my children make me happy,” she says, “in the opposite order!”
“I’ve seen a lot of nature disappear”
And nature too, of course. Her work is a constant reminder of the gifts that surround us, and a plea for us to see it. “Being the age I am, I’ve seen a lot of nature disappear,” she says.
“It’s shocking. Going up the east coast on the boat, I see the cliffs outside Whitby and remember them swarming with kittiwakes and fulmars. They look so depleted now. I do think it’s very important that we respond to nature, otherwise there’s going to be none left.”
A keen gardener, she recently experimented with rewilding, laying wildflower turf, and has been heartened by the results. “You have to stop worrying about it being too tidy, but it has been brilliant,” she says.
“Goldfinches come and feed on the seed. We’ve got loads more butterflies and bees. I thought I knew about flowers and grasses but there’s such diversity in that little patch. Nature can recover if we let it.”
As spring gets under way in Wing, the dawn chorus deepens, the bird beaks grow a brighter orange and hares box in the fields; Angela will be in her studio catching all of it.
She has absolutely no plans to wind down. “It’s not like a nine to five,” she says. “My work is a reflection of what we do and where we go and that’s not going to change. You can never do it well enough – so I’m just going to have to try again!”
Wild Light by Angela Harding is published by Little, Brown (£25); angelaharding.co.uk
Written by Anna Moore