I’ve always loved animals as did my family. Growing up in North Finchley, London, I was close to the countryside and had many cats and kittens throughout my childhood. I considered becoming a vet and was inspired by the series All Creatures Great and Small. But I had a creative streak too; I was always drawing, painting, writing and piano playing. That creativity was fostered by my primary school teachers. Even then I was drawing very intricate illustrations to go alongside stories I wrote — and seemed to have a talent for it. I remember my artwork being put on the wall quite often.
My dad owned some lovely old natural history books that included line drawings and coloured plates. I loved looking through them, admiring the level of detail. I took my A levels in Social Biology, English and Theatre Arts as well as O level art, cramming it into one year. I failed it miserably! The examiners were looking for self-expression, charcoal, mess and daubs of paint, which was unlike my detailed, quieter and controlled style.
Not long after, I moved to London, still with dreams of pursuing a career in art. Of course, I also needed to make a living. I applied for a job I’d seen advertised in the New Scientist working in the Animal Care Unit at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. I ended up working for John E Cooper FRVCS — an eminent vet and now Professor. He was enthusiastic and passionate — and knew I kept up a portfolio of artwork. He asked if I’d like to illustrate one or two papers for The Veterinary Record.
On another occasion, he asked me if I’d like to illustrate a chapter on bird handling for what would become the Pergamon Press’s Practical Animal handling book. I agreed and was introduced to the Commissioning Editor at the time, Marion Jowett. Years later, we’d work together again when she had become Publications Manager at the BSAVA where I was commissioned to illustrate all the manuals.
Following my time at RCS, I applied for a degree course at Middlesex University in London in Scientific Illustration. The tutors that interviewed me thought I showed promise. But as I was admitted as a late entry I was horribly behind and felt out of my depth. Everybody else had followed a traditional route to art school, having been taught the basics of art and been successful in an O level, A level and foundation course. At first, I struggled and over-enthusiastically tried to keep up. By my second year I’d settled down and began to feel that I was at the same level as my fellow students. It was during those four years that I developed my niche in veterinary illustration. My final year degree show projects included illustrating the Supersenses of the Domestic cat — I was particularly fascinated by the cats’ eye. In fact, one of my first commissions after graduating was to produce the artwork for a new book, The Encyclopaedia of the Cat by Bruce Fogel.
Since then, I’ve worked on some incredible projects for some truly wonderful clients including the PDSA and Blue Cross. To date, I have illustrated over eighty titles for the PDSA. In 2015 I was commissioned by the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket to create several very detailed anatomical artworks for its new Thoroughbred Gallery, a project that took about a year. Following its completion, I received an invitation from the Trustees of the Home of Horseracing and NHM inviting me to the formal opening of the newly branded Heritage Centre by its patron — The Queen! It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Another truly memorable project came about from attending Norwich Science Week in 2018. Professor Alice Roberts was the guest speaker and I had the opportunity to chat with her during the interval about my work. She asked me: “What are you doing in December?”. And went on to explain that she wanted the skeleton painted onto a ‘live’ horse for her Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Of course, I said I’d love to do it! The horse I painted was called Leo — an ex-King’s Troupe and such a beautiful, patient creature. It was a huge accolade to work with Alice on these famous lectures, which was broadcast on Boxing Day at 8 PM on BBC4. Seeing my name on the ending credit roll was quite something!
Being both an artist and animal lover I have pursued other creative projects. In June 2021 I had my first book published, A Cat in Hell’s Chance — Lucky’s Story. The book is based on a true story about a holiday maker and her daughter in Corfu and the transformation of a stray kitten’s life — as well as their own. I have since adopted a rescue kitten from Corfu called Honeysuckle!
While writing the book I became involved with the UK registered charity Agni Animal Welfare Fund. Wanting to raise the charity’s profile, I produced a film for them and provided my own voice-over to promote the charity and its work. Filmmaking is another fantastic creative outlet for me; I’ve made short films and animations for my own artwork as well as for my clients.
Overall, I feel so fortunate to do the work that I do — and am a great believer in getting out of life what you put into it.
Sam Elmhurst is a Veterinary, Equine & Medical Illustrator as well as being an Author and Filmmaker. You can find out more about Sam's work at her website.