“I’ve always drawn, and maintained my curiosity in all aspects of the natural world,” says artist Chris Otley. “My family kept a large menagerie of creatures while I was growing up – I’ve kept chameleons, six-foot iguanas, praying mantises, snakes and tortoises, alongside peacocks, sheep and donkeys. A lot of our childhood was spent at the coast in Northumberland, scrambling around outside looking for newts and caterpillars, or emptying rockpools at the beach to look for lobsters and unusual crabs, and these formative experiences have stayed with me – whenever I travel now, wildlife tends to form a focus point for my trips.”
Chris Otley kept up his drawing practice during university, but it’s only in the last 5 to 10 years that he’s developed his approach and refined his technique and chosen subject matter.
“Increasingly I’ve found myself moving away from depicting birds and animals directly as single motifs on the page – powerful though I still find that approach. Instead, I’ve begun to look at other ways of incorporating narrative into my drawings.” Says Otley.
The artist further describes his process—“I spent some time researching rare species of locust in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London for a particular project, and the carefully pinned specimens with their tiny handwritten labels in beautiful Victorian scripts really caught my attention, and lead me towards incorporating maps more directly in my work – most recently in my ongoing series of drawings looking at invasive species found in and around London.”
For his drawing, The Signal Crayfish, Chris Otley chose to combine the drawing with the crest and motto in gold leaf of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, after travelling to Billingsgate Market at 4am and meeting with the legendary ‘Bastard of Billingsgate’ fishmonger Roger Barton.
Otley described how Barton, “showed me his box full of the ‘vicious little buggers’ so I could photograph them for my drawing.”
Earlier postgraduate research while a student at the Courtauld Institute introduced Otley to the travel journals of 18th century colonialists and their immaculate drawings of specimens in conjunction with the crisp cartography of their maps.
Otley often adds maps to his drawings of creatures, as “they offer a sense of tradition and change….[yet] remain strangely subjective.”
“I like the idea of reading some of my drawings as maps in themselves – strange island territories with their stark edges and crystalline contours, floating in an expansive sea of perfectly clean cartridge paper.”