by Emma Clayton

A FRIENDLY badger pours the tea while his two hedgehog companions tuck into buttered bread at the table in his cosy underground home.

At first glance, the beautifully detailed watercolour could be a scene from Wind in the Willows or a Beatrix Potter tale.

But look closer at Chris Dunn's animal paintings and you'll see his distinctive blend of humour and narrative; a backdrop for his colourful population of anthropomorphic animal characters.

This summer freelance illustrator Chris, from Riddlesden, near Keighley, will be showing his entire collection of paintings at a top gallery in Paris. The invitation came when his paintings were spotted on social media.

"The gallery found my artwork on Facebook. At the time I didn't have a profile on the site, so I assume somebody must have posted something about my work," says Chris. "It's the first major showing of my artwork, I'm hugely excited about the prospect of exhibiting with such a well respected gallery."

The exhibition will run at Galerie Daniel Maghen from June 29 to July 23. As a taster for the show, gallery owner Daniel Maghen sold one of Chris's paintings, A Quarter Past One On Platform Ten, through Christie's prestigious Bande Dessinée et Illustration auction in 2014, viewed by more than 900 collectors.

"I can only imagine the other opportunities that may arise once my exhibition is open to the public," says Chris. "There are 40 watercolour illustrations in total, all influenced by the quintessentially English children's stories of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame's Wind In The Willows.

"In my work you'll discover an opera singing badger, a rat pirate captain, a hare schoolmistress and a host of other British animals all interacting with one another in familiar, sometimes amusing ways.

"I've been building up to this exhibition for the past two years. I will be sharing the gallery with Californian animal artist Joe Weatherly, whose clients have included Nickelodeon, Dreamworks Feature Animation and Universal Studios."

Chris's passion for animal watercolours was inspired by the Redwall Abbey books by Brian Jacques. "I grew up reading them, they featured lots of mice and other woodland animals having adventures and living in a large sandstone abbey," says Chris. "Jacques' books were a big influence, so when he passed away in 2011 I marked his death by painting Jacques' Rest as one of his mouse characters, gently falling asleep at his writing desk as snow falls outside. This was the first anthropomorphic animal painting I did."

As a child, Chris enjoyed art as "just another subject at school".

"It wasn’t until my teenage years at Bingley Grammar School that I realised I could further my artistic skills," he says. "I was there when the school underwent a huge expansion, which included a new art block on two levels. I spent my lunch breaks and any other spare time in the new building with my friends, working on projects and chatting to teachers. It was a very formative time for me."

Chris went on to do an art foundation course at Bradford College School Of Art. "With the help of the fine art tutors, I saw illustration as the way forward and found my way to Swindon School Of Art, initially to study archaeological illustration, then moving onto a general illustration degree," he says.

It was at Swindon that Chris met his wife, Suzanne, and they both graduated in 2008.

Chris initially worked in an art shop and a gallery, while working as a freelance illustrator. He credits his first major inspiration, and the artist who made him aware of illustration as a career, as Canadian illustrator John Howe, best known for his work based on JRR Tolkien's books, including the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

"Everybody, whether they know it or not, has at some point seen his artwork - either on book covers, board games or in every one of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films," says Chris. "I've been a fan of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth since I was nine, when I first read The Hobbit. At such a young age I didn’t know about the wealth of Tolkien-inspired artwork, so there was a big gap between reading the stories and finding visuals.

"That happened at the age of 14, when I was Christmas shopping in a local book shop and stumbled across John Howe’s calendar. My world suddenly expanded as I flicked through each wonderful page."

When Chris was at art college and took a hiatus from watercolour in favour of oils, he says it was the inspiration of Howe's work that "brought me back to the light".

"I picked up watercolour again, determined to crack it," says Chris. "He was the first big inspiration; the man who inspired me to paint and attempt a career from my own artwork. I’ve seen his originals at a show in London, but I just missed meeting the man himself. Hopefully in future our paths will cross."

Chris would like to develop a career illustrating books, combined with exhibiting the original paintings.

When starting a new illustration, he first considers the ‘atmosphere’ of the painting. "Be it based on temperature, weather or emotion, I always want to convey some kind of atmosphere before you notice what the main character is doing," he says. "My inspiration comes from the world around me; I enjoy walking and visiting historical sites, keeping an eye out for interesting architecture, trees and passages of light at different times of the day. I always have my camera with me so I can capture a moment before it passes.

"I'm also inspired by books and films, artists from the past such as Norman Rockwell and the Pre-Raphaelites, and contemporaries like Sam Weber and the master of imaginative realism, James Gurney."

Chris works from his home studio in Calne, Wiltshire. "My wife and I have two little boys, two-year-old Arthur and baby Oscar. Arthur is especially good at invading his daddy’s studio and ‘helping’ him with his painting!" he smiles.

* For more about Chris Dunn's work visit