I had pneumonia as a kid, and had to stay home from school. I started drawing birds out in the garden," reflects Alan Hunt when asked at what point he realised that he wanted to paint animals.
Years on, the home on Sutton Bank that Hunt shares with his artist wife Judi Kent Pyrah sits within a veritable bird haven.
But it is to endangered species rather than the wagtails, doves, tits and pheasants that frequent the numerous bird feeders in the couple's garden that Hunt turns his painterly eye, painting elephant, big cats and polar creatures too.
Long-established as an internationally- renowned wildlife artist, four time Gold Medal winner at the Society of Animal Artists in the USA, with work in the private collections of the Sultan of Oman, Prince Bernard of the Netherlands and the Jacht Museum in Hollan, Hunt's path was clear from that childhood moment.
As a child he would take in sick and injured birds, nursing them back to health. "When I left school I couldn't decide at first whether to go to art college or to study zoology." A term at art school made up his mind. "I wanted to paint wildlife and nothing else, and everyone else was interested in abstract art." So zoology it was.
He describes himself as a zoologist who paints wildlife, and in many ways this is an accurate description – his work is clearly informed by a vast knowledge of anatomy and with a deep sensitivity to habitats. His paintings are extremely precise, with great attention to detail as well as texture. "I'm fascinated by moving water and love painting it... or areas of grass or pebbles. When I'm painting the challenge is to make the ripples and shadows look real. I really get high on that challenge." Some artistic influences comes from the Victorian artists, although results are perhaps more contemporary photo realism. "The Victorian painters made very intricate pictures which you can always find new details in. I really like that," says Hunt. Painting seems to lead him onto greater and greater challenges in this way – he recently created a huge work comprising hundreds and hundreds of pebbles, with a single bird sat atop them all.
Alan Hunt has always been involved with conservation, and has been known to be publicly outspoken on the subject. This passion has seen him use his talents to raise thousands of pounds for wildlife and to work and exhibit with the likes of fellow wildlife artist David Shepherd. Alan now represents himself, selling his work over the internet, and also through a gallery in Thirsk, Wild Country Arts, that he and Judi have just launched. For twelve years he exhibited with the Halcyon Gallery, who greatly encouraged his love of conservation and financed field trips all over the world.
These days, says Alan, he knows many of his subjects so well – lions, elephants, giraffes – that he can paint them straight from memory, but on field trips he tends to sketch, photograph and make field paintings, too, often concentrating on flora, fauna and surroundings as much as on the animals.
The walls in Alan and Judi's home are covered in wildlife paintings – not just their own paintings, but many by other wildlife artists, many of them friends, such as Donald Grant, John Seerey-Lester and Carl Renders.
Nowadays their only household pet is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel called Patsy Malone, but until recently they also shared their home with an eagle owl and a barn owl. Part of Alan's conservation work has been breeding owls in a purpose-built area near the stables. "I initially wanted to breed big cats,' says Alan, "but realised that the horses wouldn't like it." Many of the birds that he released into the wild still live in the area.
Judi's work also features in the house – she, too, is an accomplished artist, and while her first love is horses, in particular arab horses, she also does a mean hippo or zebra. Like many women, Judi's career has often played second fiddle to the roles of wife and mother, and more recently to her passion for thoroughbred Arab horses.
The couple's first journey together – a research trip – was to Jordan, where Judi, who had been more interested in eventing until then, had the opportunity to ride King Hussein of Jordan's horse. The moment proved to be a pivotal one for Judi, whose interest in the breed was born. Already a highly accomplished horse woman, she eventually started buying and breeding top Arab horses, building a reputation for breeding champions – she won 25 championships in her first home-produced showing season.
This love of horses is very apparent in Judi's own painting, as the Arab horse is her most usual subject.
Both artists work from studios at their Yorkshire home, overlooking the breathtaking views of surrounding countryside, but have recently decided that it's time to downscale and move to pastures new. They have their hearts set on France and are hoping to be able to sell up and move as soon as possible. Given the stunning location of their 11 acre property, that shouldn't take too long.