Martin Ursell

The Nature of the Beast (in landscape)


Looking back at the depiction of animals in illustration and on various forms of printed ephemera it seems to me that the environment in which an animal is depicted influences our perception of its character.  Whales writhe in stormy seas, camels pace past palm tree deserts and lions lash their tails in hothouse jungles.  From early medieval depictions of saints in pastoral landscapes with their doting lambs and lions through to Victorian tea caddies where parrots and lemurs perch and pose by erupting volcanoes, it is the landscape that offers the clue to the nature of the beast.  Or rather it is the landscape that offers an insight into our attitude towards the world’s wildlife.

I have always been a regular zoo-goer and having drawn at zoos and menageries throughout the world for over forty-five years, (Keeping Sketchbooks/Crowood Press 2016/  Zootime/The Old Lion House 2016), my proposal is to look back at the depiction of wild animals in given landscapes, at how this is continually changing, and at how this has informed and fashioned our attitude towards animals.

When drawing animals in zoos I rarely draw them in their landscape, (despite the fact that they are often housed in enclosures that mimic their perceived or actual environments), instead opting for drawings that stand in isolation.

I will be drawing on a life time’s collection of ephemera depicting animals in landscapes from book jackets to matchbox lids, tea cards to children’s building blocks and cigar boxes to sheet music, and as a lecturer I also have access to Middlesex University’s extensive and extraordinary special collections archive.


Martin Ursell has illustrated over one hundred books for children including stories by Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl, Ted Hughes, and Marina Warner.  He was a regular illustrator for the children’s TV programme Jackanory, and his own story Hairy Hairy was televised by the BBC.  Martin’s latest book called KEEPING SKETCHBOOKS was published this year and he is programme leader for the Children’s Books MA at Middlesex University.


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