Rory Dobner begins his day at the Ponds on Hampstead Heath, where he swims with the ducks and geese and gazes at the parrots flying overhead before heading to his nearby studio.
His studio is quite something. The artist’s base is mostly a cool monochrome affair (much like his drawings), save for a smattering of vintage Union Jack paraphernalia and an intriguing selection of taxidermy. This is all set off by brilliant daylight from the huge glass window in the ceiling, a light source of great importance to the artist. “It’s kind of like being outside,” explains Rory, “when there’s a rainstorm it’s really atmospheric and there’s an old Victorian street light which makes this amazing projection, and in autumn the whole roof is covered with orange leaves.”
“I was born as a Victorian collector child, I would have Camembert boxes, crab claws, feathers from different birds. It was all labelled."
It’s not surprising that Dobner has created a wild-base for himself in London. He grew up on the tiny Hayling Island, where he spent much of his early childhood on the beach, in and out of the sea and, most importantly, beachcombing. “I was born as a Victorian collector child”, Dobner explains, “I would have Camembert boxes, crab claws, feathers from different birds. It was all labelled.” This obsessive cataloguing grew from his fascination with detail. “Of course, I could see the world as a landscape, but I also homed in on the objects, cracks, wrinkles and textures. I was just very visual,” he explains.
Pushed by a desire to be able to draw every object under the sun (and moon) Rory started “painting obsessively,” (his words) at five or six. “I was a bit like an Andrex puppy,” the draftsman explains of his young self. “I drew on all my father’s fax paper rolls and he used to follow the trail of paper when he got back from work and find me under the table scribbling. It was coming out like a constant stream.”
Rory’s parents nurtured his talent, which entered an enterprising new phase at the Royal Hospital School: “When I was 16 I became a pen for hire [mostly so that he would get invited to parties],” explains Rory, who at this point began painting oil portraits of staff, dogs, houses etc. for whoever wanted it. “Although in retrospect, they severely underpaid me,” he laughs, remembering jobs he did for a fiver.
Then it was painting at Chelsea Art School and sculpture and kinetic art at Central St Martins, before he eventually sat down with pen (or quill or Chinese paintbrush), ink and paper and created his now well-known set of characters.
The theme of my work is that the characters have a background
“The theme of my work is that the characters have a background,” he explains. The first character, Smoky Fish, was based on a man he used to drive past every day: “He was always smoking outside an office and looked totally miserable. I drew it on an out of date A to Z. The goldfish sums him up - doing a monotonous job and just going around and around the bowl.”
Another of his recognisable works, the Cat Monocle, came to life after Rory (sofa-bound following a mountaineering accident) spent the day watching James Bond films. He dozed off and dreamt of the various Bond cats and when he awoke Cat Monocle was born, complete with his bowler hat and, of course, his monocle.
Rory’s characters feature on tiles in John Lewis, tea sets and other homewares in Fortnum & Mason and they have also become popular in Europe (interestingly, France has the most shops stocking his work) USA, the Far East and the Middle East. “They could be anywhere in the world – in any shop with an imaginative curator,” Rory explains.
So what’s next for this idiosyncratic British creative? An Alice in Wonderland collection is underway: “I’ve just drawn Alice, perching on a teacup, painting on a pocket watch the size of big ben - twisting the ideas of scale and size,” he explains. His first book, an illustrated creation depicting The Ink House – a magical abandoned house on Hampstead heath inhabited by a troupe of animals – is in shops now. But most excitingly, the illustrator has been working on a very special anniversary project with Ettinger, to be unveiled next week (Thursday 11th July) – a once in a lifetime collaboration between British creatives and craftsmen. Three cheers for British talent, we say.