Discover the bizarre inhabitants of Britain: an interview with cartoonist Chelsea Renton

Chelsea Renton
Chelsea Renton

East Sussex artist Chelsea Renton is treading a more comical path with her latest project.

Inspired by a walk in the Hebrides with a bird-spotting guide, the Lewes-based sculptor and portrait artist has created a book of UK caricatures.

The Trustafarian. Picture by Chelsea Renton

The Trustafarian. Picture by Chelsea Renton

A Field Guide to the Peoples of the British Isles will be in bookshops on Thursday, November 7.

It’s a lighthearted and affectionate tome, packed with witty cartoons that depict and categorize our country’s weird and wonderful inhabitants.

These include the Trustafarian (plumage borrowed from another species), the Opera Lover (staple diet: salmon) and the Personal Trainer (top heavy) among many, many others.

“I was walking along the edge of a beach looking at birds,” says Chelsea, 54, when she’s asked about her moment of inspiration.

Opera Lover. Picture by Chelsea Renton

Opera Lover. Picture by Chelsea Renton

“I think what got me going is that in the Hebrides the locals call the incomers ‘swallows’, the holiday trippers who appear all over the place for a couple of months. It was rather nice and I was thinking about that and looking at the beach. There was a group of ‘swallows’ having a noisy picnic, there were kids playing around in the surf and there was someone kicking around in the sea.”

Suddenly, Chelsea was struck by an amusing thought: wouldn’t it be fun to do a book about people in the style of a bird book? Their mating behaviours, their diets, their habitats and the various eccentricities that are on display for all to see.

“The very first one I did was the artist,” Chelsea says. “I taught art for years and it just makes me laugh,”

The doodle shows an amateur painter outside, drawing of course, but mainly struggling all day long with her easel.

The Single Mum. Picture by Chelsea Renton

The Single Mum. Picture by Chelsea Renton

“It goes up and down and keeps falling over and that often happens when I have my art classes, I have two-hour art classes and the first hour is trying to get everyone’s easels up as they fall over and the boards fall off, and then you have a tea break and afterwards you might actually get some art done.”

It’s one of Chelsea’s favourites, as is the Yummy Mummy: “It’s a single drawing and it says everything in the drawing with no further explanation needed.”

In fact, Chelsea explains, simplicity is the key ingredient to making a caricature effective.

“If you can’t get it in a few lines or in a single sentence then it’s not going to work,” she states. “Keep to the essence.”

The Yummy Mummy. Picture by Chelsea Renton

The Yummy Mummy. Picture by Chelsea Renton

This approach certainly seems to be working, as Chelsea’s designs have already found an audience in The Oldie magazine for the past two years.

“I quite like the landed gentry buying all their booze at Aldi,” she continues. “And I quite like the middle class festival-goer. I mean the thing is you could do so many more. You could do a whole book of festival-goers, all the different types that go.”

As Chelsea makes clear, the cartoon characters are based on occupation and behaviour, not ethnicity, as these two factors cut across everybody. And, she adds, the book only depicts people that she knows, or has at least encountered frequently. Looking more closely at the cover will reveal that the words “some of” have been neatly squeezed in before “the Peoples of the British Isles”.

So, with this in mind, which cartoon best depicts Chelsea?

“Oh, the single mum,” she replies immediately. “Hanging around in your ex-boyfriend’s shirt, having a sneaky fag and a glass or wine while the kids are in bed, hoping they haven’t noticed. And actually the hair stylist one shows me. I’m the person having their hair cut. Anybody with short hair knows that when you go the hair stylist whatever haircut you ask for if you have short, thin, blond hair you will look exactly the same when you come out regardless of the title of the haircut.”

So how does Chelsea come up with each drawing? How does she go from an idea and a blank sheet of paper to a fully realised caricature?

“More often that not I see somebody and I go ‘ah, there’s a character’,” she begins. “My creative process is first to sit staring into space in my studio. That quite often doesn’t work so the next thing I do is I go to the loo. I find sitting on the loo can help, and if that doesn’t work I’ll go for a walk and there’s a sort of one-mile square walk around my studio on the Ouse valley. If that doesn’t work I’ll go home and have a bath and the combination of those four things normally means I’ll come up with some ideas. Does that sound a bit weird?”

Most people, I’m sure, would be in agreement: not at all.

But, Chelsea clarifies, the idea comes first and doesn’t really take shape until she starts drawing and the character begins to dictate itself. As for knowing when the drawing is done, that’s very tricky to define.

“I put them on Instagram and see how friends react,” Chelsea explains after a long pause. “You can tell pretty quickly if it’s worked or not, so I do that often to test my ideas out.”

But I think you just know when you’ve got it,” she continues. “I look back at the book now, because it was finished some while ago, and I think ‘ooh, I could have done a bit more with that person, and done a bit more with that’. But you know when it works.”

Chelsea has always created art in some form or other (for example, she did some of the illustrations for the Boden Catalogue when it started) but she hasn’t always been a full-time artist.

She worked as a political advisor during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and, more recently, was a councillor for the Lewes Green Party until May this year.

She explains: “I was in my mid-twenties and I had some sort of vague commission to do some war drawings, I think for the Evening Standard and maybe the Imperial War Museum. It was a vague commission out in Bosnia. It was the very beginning of the war and I went out there and thought ‘oh, no, no, I don’t need to be doing drawings, I need to do something here’. I got there very early so I was working with refugees for a year or two, and then in one of the enclaves during the war in Bosnia. I got to speak the language reasonably well and I knew what the issues were and the foreign office picked me up and it just went on from there.”

She was seconded to the EU for years as a war monitor, humanitarian advisor and then a political advisor in Mostar and Sarajevo. Then she ended up in Brussels before returning to the Lewes area.

“In fact,” she explains, “I rented a cottage in Firle from the early 2000s when I had kids and that’s when I went back to art again.”

Now, Chelsea takes on a variety of commissions, with a portfolio that includes portraits of high-profile people like Richard E. Grant, Denis Healey and Arthur Brown. If you’re a Glyndebourne visitor you may have noticed the bronze head of Sir George Christie in the foyer. That’s one of Chelsea’s. In fact, she was artist-in-residence once at Glyndebourne when she created lots little fired clay heads of the singers and staff. More recently, Chelsea’s found herself back in the great outdoors, painting landscapes in her VW van, which acts as a mobile studio if it’s windy or cold out.

“I do bits and bobs of everything that I’m interested in,” she says of her current career. “All sorts of subject matter and media.

“I think of myself as a jobbing artist rather than an Artist with a capital A.”

To find out more about Chelsea’s work visit www.chelsearenton.com.

A Field Guide to the Peoples of the British Isles will be out in hardback on November 7 (£12.99, 128 pages), published by Oneworld.

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