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My brilliant pet detectives

Blog | By Ali Carter | Jun 08, 2018

What do you learn about owners by drawing their pets? Practically everything. I draw pets to commission, as does the main character in my new detective novel: pet portraitist and amateur super-sleuth Susie Mahl. We’d agree it’s a fine way to win the trust of strangers, be invited into their personal space and turn your clients into friends

To get the pet’s look right, I must meet my subject, and get a feeling for their character and how they move. I spend an hour minimum, taking photographs and ‘hanging out’ with the pet. I’ll then carry out the final drawing at home in my studio. I can’t draw truthfully unless I’m left to decide the pose and composition, with the agreement that my client only buys the picture if they like it. Absolutely no hard feelings if not.

With every commission, front doors fling open, and faces beam at the artist who’s giving full attention to the favourite member of the family. The only time I met with a frosty reception was on a job for Countess So-and-So. She’d agreed my arrival at ‘3 for 3.30’. When I turned up at 3pm, she barked, ‘Oh gosh, you’re early!’ Something the upper classes really don’t like.

The first thing I do is get down on all fours, and coo with delight at my model. Owners look on, absorbing my praise with pride. It’s quite different to complimenting a child, which prompts self-deprecation: ‘Yes, Billy is very sweet but he’s a naughty monkey, really.’

Some clients offer coffee and tea; others leap on my arrival as an excuse to crack open an early bottle. A brief chat with the owner sometimes brings my life story to the fore. ‘My mother would be thrilled that an Ampleforth girl was drawing my dog!’ said a certain television host and Oldie columnist better known for eliminating weakest links.

With doggy treats in my pockets and an armoury of well-tuned scratches and tickles to get the pet onside, the owner soon drops their guard and leaves me to roam freely. I chivvy the animal around the house, tapping its bottom along to lead me into different rooms. I’ve observed scratches on the laundry door (pet sleeps downstairs), sitting rooms with hair on the sofas (couples who prefer to cuddle the pet than each other) and front rooms with leather sofas for grown-ups only (hefty mortgage).

In big, old houses – yet to install woodchip boilers and get on the upper-class bandwagon of ‘remunerable energy’ – I’m confined to the stone floor of the kitchen. The rest of the house is thought superfluous in the winter months.

It’s different in the summer. Owners who like to get in the way, thinking they know just how to relax their oochy-coochy pet, gambol on the lawn; they’re oblivious to the fact that my photographs are capturing their panties, some more revealing than others. 

Only once have I mustered the courage to ask to be left alone – or, thank God, when the telephone rings – can I get on with the job in hand.

There are some obvious connections between pet and owner. Unfit dog equals unfit owner. Characterless obedience means a shooting bore; sitting to heel means it’s the wife who likes to pick up at shoots. Reserved characteristics mean city commuter; noisy cats belong to people who like to party. If a parrot’s cage is covered by a sheet in the middle of the day, the bird has clearly been inherited by an owner who wants to keep it quiet.

Then there’s the rising popularity of ‘handbag’ dogs with high-flying, professional women. These women are busy at the BBC or frantically writing another contentious article. They have little time for walkies but still want loyal cuddles at home – their miniature poppets fit the bill.

The art doesn’t always go to plan and, occasionally, I admit defeat. The nicest reply I’ve received to this confession was, ‘Dearest Ali, no worries at all. Much looking forward to the arrival of the donkeys [which I was also drawing]. Horses are a bugger to draw anyway.’

Only twice have there been tears when I’ve delivered the final drawing. One woman was euphorically moved to tears when I eternalised her dog, Jimmy; another was deeply hurt that I’d chosen to portray her horse, Terence, with his ears back. According to legend, ears forward means happy; ears back, sad.

Even after dozens of pictures, I still love the challenge of drawing people’s beloved pets, from lifesize Labradors to prizewinning sheep.

There is one myth I must dispel. All the people I told I was writing this article said, ‘How great. You can talk all about how much owners look like their pets.’ Yawn! Not true. As an artist who draws pets and meets their owners, I can assure you that not once has any owner said, 

‘Oh look, you’ve drawn me instead’

‘A Brush with Death’ by Ali Carter is published on 7th June (Oneworld)