Drawing Miss Nancy

  • Portrait of Nancy Trotter & Il Principe Tranquillo by Melodie Cook
  • Cherry Tree Horse (Red) by Melodie Cook

We talk to artist Melodie Cook and discover the working process behind her stunning pastel portrait of Giffords Circus star, Nancy, which was exhibited at the Pastel Society Open Exhibition in early Spring 2015.

Melodie, you haven’t always been an artist, have you? Since childhood you’ve had three particular ambitions, and you’ve managed to fulfil all of them…

Basically I started a career as a model and worked out of London and Milan, loving Italy so much that I moved there. I continued to be a model for three years or so and changed to designing for the fashion industry. I designed for major Italian brands like Benetton, Replay....

I had a great time, but after eighteen years I got very fed up with fashion and decided to leave it behind.

What did you find exhausting about the world of fashion?

My passion was high street fashion – not couture – and there are only so many pairs of five-pocket jeans you can design! When you get to the next season you’re thinking ‘gosh, now what am I going to do?’ It gets a bit repetitive, though it was always exciting.

The art side of me started calling, and I decided to set up a design studio – primarily because at that point I still didn’t know what kind of art I wanted to do. I tried ceramics and glass and stationary and paper products and murals. That was all wonderful, but after 27 years I decided to leave Italy and return to the UK – which I never thought I would do – to pursue my artistic career. Because I feel it is much easier [here]…not because I’m English, but because art is not so supported, let’s say, in Italy.

Really? That’s surprising.

It sounds funny, because Italy is such an artistic country. But becoming an artist there would have been very difficult, and I wanted to go to art school. That’s how I eventually emerged onto the art scene in 2013.

So what was the problem with becoming established in Italy? The galleries?

All of it, really. I wasn’t really helped or pushed at all. Here it’s more of a serious subject, although there are some colleges in Italy – I studied in Venice for a bit – but here there’s all kinds of help, all kinds of websites and supportive artists around. So, in the end, I came full circle, really. I went to the art academy near London Bridge, where they focused on figurative drawing and portraiture, which has always been my passion.

And now you’ve made the transition to working artist, are you happier than you’ve ever been?

Oh totally, yes. Totally. I absolutely adored fashion – I had to do it and get it out of my system. I should have gone to art school long ago but I had to be a model first…you can’t really do it the other way round!

What are your connections to the Cotswolds?

I live in Hertfordshire, but I went to school in Oxfordshire. My family are all based in Oxfordshire. The Cotswolds I absolutely adore.

So how did you encounter Giffords Circus?

I was looking for a project that would inspire me – but also appeal to the public. It sounds terribly corny, but through creating art I hope to give something ‘back’ to the public. So I decided I wanted to make a show of large-scale portraits and donate a percentage of sales to the United Nations refugees. And then I discovered that Giffords is also a supporter, which certainly put me in favour when I wrote to them.

So the first work is Nancy, and I’m about to start a big picture of Tweedy in his horse costume – it’s going to look great.

Tell us about the portrait of Nancy.

The circus invited me down for three days. The first day I went to view the show, to get a good feel of it. And on the second day I had a limited time to take pictures and study the performances. Nancy was wonderful because she gave me fifteen minutes with Bobby the chicken…One of the pictures I’d shown Giffords was a portrait of a lady with a cockerel as a hat. They thought that was hilarious, because that’s exactly what Nancy does in her performances with Bobby. So after fifteen minutes and a few photos this is what came out.

I gave it a very black background. Nancy was actually outside, but most of the other pictures I took were against the black curtains in the circus. They looked so dramatic and wonderful that’s what I thought they should all look like. Because it’s quite a retro circus, I toned the colours down a little bit. It gives it a traditional portrait [feel], almost like a renaissance picture.

Portrait of Nancy Trotter by Melodie Cook

It has a dramatic look, but has that Giffords irreverence at the same time.

And it also feels quite contemporary, I think.

Do you have a composition in mind for the Tweedy picture?

I do! In fact I’m going back in April to spend more time and I’ll be making more drawings and more studies from their new show. So this is not just about The Thunders – which is last year’s show – but is a more general [representation] of Giffords.

Circus performers must be interesting for you to draw.

It satisfies all my creative sides. I come from a fashion background, so the style and fabric and colour and the people underneath all come together pleasingly.

Where can we see the planned exhibition?

I’m hoping for London and Oxford and definitely in the Cotswolds but I haven’t decided where to do it yet. I’m getting the work done first – it’s got to be as good as it can be, and I’ll be making affordable limited editions as well. They’re going to be on sale from the middle of March.

See more of Melodie’s artwork at www.melodiecook.co.uk

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Cotswold Homes. Melodie Cook's work is reproduced here with her kind permission.