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Exhibition “Lion” shows the strength, resilience and charisma of Africa's Lions

Lion Landscapes CEOs Amy and Alayne recently visited Mark Adlington's exhibition at the John Martin Gallery London and were blown away by his evocative paintings. “Lion”, showing until the 28th of May, is the result of a three-year project by artist Mark Adlington to study wild lions in six different habitats across Africa. Every painting stimulates stories and intimate details from the many cumulative hours spent in the presence of lions, from the way they twitch their tails in different moods to bending their front paws inwards just before placing them on the ground.

The magnificent exhibition is being held in collaboration with Pride Lion Conservation Alliance, with 10% of all proceeds from any sales directly supporting Pride and Lion Landscapes. If you cannot visit in person, we strongly recommend a visit to the online viewing room, to soak up some of Lion's essence. Read on to explore more through our exclusive interview with the artist.

Lion Landscapes CEO's Amy and Alayne visiting ‘Lion’.

Q. You have captured the essence of the lion really well (and that is coming from lion behavioural ecologists). Is it spending time with the animals themselves that allows you to do that? Where did you do your field research?

Mark: Firstly thank you - really the best compliment I could receive! I have (reluctantly) used animals in wildlife parks in the past where necessary, but with this project, I made a decision from the beginning that I only wanted to draw wild lions. The captive lions in northern zoos had an overweight shaggy feel that failed to inspire me. I was lucky enough to make six separate trips to Kenya and Namibia, helped enormously by conservationists in both countries who have since become friends.

Every place that I visited brought different lions, different landscapes, different light and different conditions - which is interestingly apparent in the finished paintings. In some places (Etosha) for example, you can only observe from the road, but then you also have the luxury of driving yourself and therefore putting in 12 hour days where necessary. In other places, I could watch them at night, or on foot. For me spending time with the animals was totally essential. I can honestly say that I learned something new from every single encounter - though this does leave you with a horrible awareness of just how much you don’t know!

"For me, spending time with the (wild) animals was totally essential." - Mark Adlington

Q. Were there any particularly powerful moments during your field research (or afterwards) that really influenced your paintings that you would like to share with us?

Mark: As a painter it can often be strangely abstract visual things that really hit you - the surprising beauty of a carcass in the evening light, the pink curl of a lion’s tongue when grooming, or the way the myriad khakis of grasses blend into a lion’s coat. I once watched a small pride coming across a tortoise and using it as a football for half an hour. The big Male cuffed it about a couple of times then gave up, but the lioness was hugely athletic and knocked it about for far longer as if to try and teach her only cub, who then tried to emulate her before sitting on the tortoise for a long time before losing interest. I often found that subadults, particularly young males, just on the verge of being kicked out of the pride, were the most interested in me, as if looking for distraction while sitting out the long day and waiting for their free meal to arrive with their mother.

Cubs playing are obviously endlessly entertaining and charming to watch, though that also gave me enormous respect and admiration for the wisdom and patience of their mothers. I only ever witnessed one successful hunt, in the Mara but have also seen how opportunistic lions can be, stealing an impala from hyaenas, and freezing, grandmother's footsteps style when stray game presents itself.

Q. What was the most difficult and wonderful thing about painting lions (as opposed to other species)?

Mark: I suppose the most frustrating aspect of the research element in this project was the famous 16-20 hours of sleep that lions can luxuriate in. To watch the golden hour casting magic over the landscape hoping that the lions will become active, only to see them begin to move the second the sun has truly disappeared. On the plus side, the powerfully fluid muscularity of wild lions meant that any simple action - sitting up, grooming, rolling over - presented me with an inspiring subject. And while the hypnotic charisma of their inscrutable stare is irresistible, three of my favourite paintings in the show, show lions turning away forcing the viewer to focus on the amazing structure of their bodies.

The shapes of a lion, lion lines as I thought of them, are subtle and specific and more elusive than more eccentrically designed mammals like rhinos or elephants, and in the case of male lions, a lot of the structure is hidden in that famous hairdo. As someone who has always suffered from back issues, the incredible flexibility of a lion’s spine was a great inspiration through the amazing variety of poses they can adopt.

Q. What made you decide to do a whole exhibition on lions?

Mark: I have always tended to work with shamanistic intensity on one species at a time, but clearly tackling what must be the most iconic species in the world takes a bit of guts! I found the millennia of lion images from around the world rather overwhelming, but the more I got into the project, the more fascinating it became to see where even heraldic or highly stylised lions in art originated. I even began to understand that the numerous myths (Androcles/ Saint Jerome) could well have had their origins in real stories when I saw how relatively quickly wild lions that were not threatened became used to me over even a period of weeks.

My ambition was to produce artwork which had observation and experience of wild lions as its absolute starting point but went beyond the normal confines of “safari art” in its execution.

Q. What made you want to support Pride?

"I knew I was watching and drawing lions in places that had come perilously close to losing them altogether in the recent past" - Mark Adlington

Mark: I had first-hand knowledge of two of the organisations within the Pride umbrella, as I worked in the Chyulu hills and at Loisaba where Lion Guardians and Lion Landscapes have had such success in making it possible for people to live and work alongside lions with the minimal possible friction. And knew that I was watching and drawing lions in places that had come perilously close to losing them altogether in the recent past.

I then heard about the Tusk Conservation lecture in London’s Royal Geographical society and went along. The talk given by Dr. Amy Dickman and Dr. Alayne Cotteril was hugely inspiring. Quite aside from the wealth of experience and pragmatic imaginative, multi-faceted conservation action, I found the whole concept of sharing experience, successes, failures, and even funding across borders and organisations obvious and ground breaking in equal measure. I am based in central London for much of the year, where I struggle (no really!) with pigeons and grey squirrels. We are asking local communities in African countries to live alongside lions. This is not an easy ask but if anyone can find a solution which provides a realistic future for these magnificent and most charismatic cats, I feel the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance can. It was a no brainer.

Ten percent of the proceeds from any sales goes to supporting the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance.

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