Yorkshire artist Julia Burns swaps her paintbrush for a potato

When one of Britain's most sought-after artists swapped her paintbrush for a potato she made quite an impression, as Chris Titley finds out

Famous names and major corporations queue up to buy Julia Burns’ art. Her large, square abstracts, filled with colour and energy, have been acquired by everyone from Richard Branson to GlaxoSmithKline.

The National Farmers’ Union bought her evocative Cow & Calf picture for their national headquarters, and her artworks change hands for thousands of pounds.

And yet many more people around the world are now the proud owners of an original Julia Burns picture which cost them less than �40.

Her studio is a first floor room of her home, close to Nunnington Hall on the edge of the North York Moors National Park. It contains dozens of pictures of pecking hens, foraging pheasants, groups of guinea fowl and curious country mice.

The materials she uses to create these images litter the desk under the window. Acrylic paints. A paintbrush or two soaking in an old Frank Cooper’s Marmalade jar. And a bag of potatoes.

‘At first I kept very quiet about them being potato prints because I thought it would devalue them,’ Julia said. ‘But I have hit on this nostalgia thing. Everybody did potato printing at school – but not quite like this.’

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Not at all like this. What Julia can conjure from a humble spud is astonishing. She slices a large potato in half, dabs it with kitchen paper to remove excess moisture, and deftly carves a shape into the flesh.

This she brushes with different shades of paint – reds and browns for the hens, black and yellow for a great tit – before pressing the potato onto a sheet of good quality watercolour paper.

‘It’s the starch, the moisture in the potato, that helps to give these lovely feathery effects which work particularly well with the birds,’ she says.A deft touch with the paintbrush adds detail like the hen’s comb or the pheasant’s red face, and another painting is complete.

Every one is a signed, dated original. Even those created from the same potato look different from one another.

The creatures are full of life and character, and they have charmed people all over the world, with orders to her website (redhenoriginals.com) arriving from America, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Local people buy the pictures too from supportive stockists like Saltbox Gallery in Helmsley, Victoria Rose Interiors in Kirkbymoorside and Aberford Interiors near Leeds.

Five years ago Julia would never have believed she’d be busily potato printing in her studio. But the hens were hatched out of necessity. Her husband, Simon, lost his job as a wine merchant in the 2008 credit crunch. They have a young family – son Harry is now 13 and daughter Rose is 11 – and bills to pay.

The crisis forced them to sell their house in Oswaldkirk and look for new sources of income.‘Suddenly I had to stop being the grand artist and do something that was going to bring in some money,’ said Julia.

Yet it was her talent as an artist that saved the day. Julia has always loved drawing and painting and won The Children’s Royal Academy Bronze Medal when she was 15. It was the first of many awards for her artwork.She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her large, bold canvases at her degree show were snapped up by art lovers, and in 1985 she moved into her parent’s holiday cottage in Helmsley to paint full-time.

That Christmas she made cards for 100 of her family and friends. They were potato prints of hens in the snow. People loved the cards so much they framed them and hung them on the wall.

Twenty years later Julia, now an established and collectable fine artist, was asked to contribute a postcard-sized artwork to a show raising money for victims of the Asian tsunami. Other contributors included David Hockney and Damien Hirst.

The best were auctioned by Sotheby’s. Julia created another potato print picture of hens – ‘I have always liked hens. I did figurative hens at college’.

It raised �720.

She remembered the popularity of that picture and her Christmas cards when she needed to earn some extra money, and Red Hen Originals was born.

‘The whole concept is affordable art. You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for an original piece of work, something unique.’ Comparing the pictures to her husband’s work in the wine trade, she says there are distinct vintages. She does Christmas robins on a different background each year and the 2008 vintage has long been sold out and is proving very collectable.

Julia would like more time to return to her first love, abstract painting, but is putting that on hold to expand the Red Hen business.

Her potato print pictures have already been transformed into greetings cards, on sale in John Lewis stores, and limited edition prints, and she’s now hoping to see her hens, mice and guinea fowl decorating everything from coasters to aprons and hessian bags.

‘It’s a different sort of creativity, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where my little red hens take us,’ she said. We wish her the best of cluck

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012  issue of Yorkshire Life 

We can deliver a copy direct to your door – order online here 


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