David Southgate’s original pastels, oils and hand-carved ceramics have been prized by hunters and other wildlife lovers in Australia and overseas for more than twenty-five years. For the past eighteen years, this South African-born artist and SCI Member has also donated them to our Australian SCI Down Under Chapter, as effective fundraisers. Since first meeting him at one of our annual Expos in the 1990s, I’ve followed his career, admired his art and, on occasions, watched him creating it.
As a hunter, I’m drawn right into the vivid atmosphere of a wild encounter that is a trademark in Southgate’s style. He is actually able to convey how it is to be there, from the setting’s correct vegetation to accurate anatomy and motion, without overworking a single detail. As hunters, know from experience that genuine knowledge of the wild and the daily life of its creatures takes years to develop, and it can’t be faked.
To anyone seeing David Southgate sketch animals from memory, it would be no surprise that as a child he watched them in the bush where his father was a local doctor, and on his family’s regular trips to the Drakensburg and Kruger. In an interview he explained that his love for wildlife began early on, when his parents lived across the road from Johannesburg Zoo. Kindly zookeepers would often phone them to say that little David was in their care again, and could be collected. “Those are the first memories I have,” he says. “Haunting that zoological park, visiting the animals. Trying to draw and model them at home. In hindsight, it obviously framed my whole future.”
It certainly did. As a teenager on Australia’s East Coast where his parents had settled, Southgate left high school to work at the nearby Reptile Park. A year later he was hired as a zookeeper at Sydney’s famous Taronga Zoo, where he became an accredited veterinary nurse, and gained years of hands-on experience caring for large and small animals. “Of all of them, my favorite creatures and favorite subjects are still the big cats.” he says.
In 2003, I got to know him better when we both visited the SCI Reno Expo with our Down Under Chapter President, Ray Hammond. Each of us enjoyed the Expo’s scale and its huge range of outfitters, artists, gunsmiths and hunt specialists. As Southgate commented, for him it was an inspiring event where he made some contacts and learned about giclee printing, the method that had revolutionized fine art printing in Europe and the United States.
At the Expo also, SCI member Bob Penfold enthusiastically gave the space on his Hunt Australia booth for Southgate to show his newest oil painting “Big Game Animals of the South Pacific.” It is a global view of Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, surrounded by shoulder mount images of all big game animals that can be hunted free range in these three countries. Although the canvas brought far less than works by the Expo’s established artists, Southgate donated a high percentage of its sale to SCI Down Under. As he said, he wanted to express his thanks to Bob Penfold and to other SCI Members for their ongoing support and interest in his art.
In 2003, Southgate launched a limited edition print of that painting, complete with details on each of the species, which sold out. It wouldn’t be surprising if one of those prints is on nearly every hunter’s trophy room wall in our part of the world, and I know that more than a few found their way to the USA and Europe as well. With demand persisting ten years later, a new edition of the print is available on the artist’s website.
My own Southgate pastel is of a young kudu bull. It fits my personal liking for a bold art style, full of strong movement and light effects. I bought it from David a few years ago at his booth in our annual SCI Expo. It’s an image that he had caught as if it was the first moment that he saw the splendid animal. I instantly liked his background strokes of earthy African colors, and I recognized the play of light and shadows that lets a Kudu emerge from its own camouflage. This pastel catches that ever-alert tension and vulnerability that thirsty animals show at a waterhole, while they run the gauntlet for that essential drink. As Southgate puts it, “If a picture can bring others in to share the magic of those first impressions, that’s my goal.”
Compared to the USA or European countries, Australia’s population is small and spread over a vast land mass. Naturally, we hunters will gladly cross it to attend SCI Down Under events. They are very small by US standards, but they never fail to charm overseas visitors with their laid back Aussie flavor.
Understanding Australia’s limited market for wildlife painting, in the early 1980s Southgate diversified into depicting animals in stoneware and porcelain. Working with his potter wife, May, he became a highly skilled ceramic artist whose works have won many awards, and have regularly sold out in art exhibitions. His versatile output includes his hand made “AFRICA” vases, cups and platters, which he decorates in the raw stage with delicate relief carvings of wildlife in action. If these pots survive a 1300 centigrade firing without blemishes, he finishes them with a final 22ct gold luster firing.
In 2005, the Southgates sold their production studios and gallery. They now only make one-off exhibition pieces, which have become real collectors’ items. Southgate produces new art for Down Under Expo visitors each year, and you needn’t be an expert to enjoy and share the wildlife encounters that it features. For instance, friends at a recent SCI Down Under Auction won a large stoneware platter that he donated. Into its reddish glazed surface he had sculpted perfectly credible, life-sized impressions of a lion’s front and rear paws, and a human footprint. This piece almost seems to have come from a riverbed, either as a slab of clay or as an ancient carved story of hunter and hunted. But of course, its maker tracked animals by their spoor from childhood, and in adulthood has kept that experience fresh through his research trips to Southern African countries.
Unlike his spontaneous “first impressions” method of sketching in pastels, Southgate slowly builds up oil paintings with very fine brush strokes and thin veils of color. The rich depth of these images can take him patient months to achieve, as each partly transparent layer has to dry completely and separately.
He is now working on a series of large oils that celebrate the historic role played by double rifles from colonial times when they were the weapon of choice for European settlers and explorers. Like the first
two paintings in the series which depict buffalo and lion encounters, this third painting is available in giclee print from the Southgates’ joint website. It deals with the early 20th century confrontation between the famous hunter and naturalist, Colonel Jim Corbett, and the man-eating Champawat tigress that had killed more than 400 villagers in the Himalayan foothills. In the painting, Corbett sits concealed in a patch of grass with his emptied old .500 double at the base of the ravine where the wounded tigress faces him, snarling. A moment later she made her last decisive move and climbed up onto a rock ledge. There she finally died from the last shot that Corbett had fired, which allowed him to live and tell his tale. Corbett recounts his efforts to end the terror that this and other man-eaters had brought to the people of northern India and Nepal, in his classic book, Man Eaters of Kumaon.
There is the ring of truth to everything that this artist portrays, because it all comes from his careful, personal observations. The landscapes and the animals that he knows so well, all come together in his art works, whether they show the iconic Big Five, or the kangaroos and other wildlife of the coastal forests around his tranquil home at Hungry Head.–Anthony Manchee