Africa, Interviews

In the Tribe: Face-to-face with Marcus Rutherford


Artist and lawyer Marcus Rutherford has travelled with Tribes eight times since 2013 – and always to Tanzania. We chatted with him about his art, his love of travel and his fascination with the nature and wildlife of Tanzania – and with a particular Victorian explorer…

“I cannot get enough of  watching elephants, which have such strong social and family  bonds.”

‘The elephant in the main picture was in Ruaha, playing near a salt lick by the side of a river. The baby elephant is from my sketchbook rather than being a finished painting.’

For the past 45+ years Marcus’s career has been in the law.  He qualified as a solicitor and has practiced most of that time as a commercial litigator in London, but was also working in Africa before he got married.

“There was a point in my life when I thought about becoming a full time artist or illustrator, having done some work for Woman’s Own magazine and illustrations for a cookery book, but there are some astonishingly talented people in what is a very competitive field and it requires a huge amount of luck as well as talent to make a good living at it. Having a family quickly convinced me I had to give priority to earning a living.  Even so, I firmly believed that it was vital to keep my creative interests going alongside my main profession, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to do so.   My range of  interests is huge – only due to my having a very low boredom threshold –  from natural history to archaeology to fine art, cookery, painting, pottery and historical research.”

‘Monty, a man in Ruaha, is studying the wild dogs and he recognises this alpha female.’

Your love of nature in all its forms is evident in your art, with subjects ranging from animals, insects and butterflies to birds, fungi, shells and flowers. When and how did that love of nature start?

As far back as I can remember.  I was born and brought up in Africa and it is impossible to ignore the wild life spectacle all around.  There were far fewer toys too, and so the countryside became the playground and seeds and shells were my ‘Lego’.  I was lucky enough to be ‘adopted’ when I was about 7 by a neighbour who was a well-known ornithologist and he took me on field trips and taught me to recognise bird calls.  He also introduced me to Joy Adamson, famous for bringing up Elsa the lioness, who was an amazing artist who helped nurture my interests in natural history.  I am however, still an enthusiastic amateur with a huge amount to learn.

‘White-fronted bee-eaters, painted from the birds in Selous.’

Birding is a particular interest of yours. Obviously your travels give you the opportunity to see exotic and unusual species, but do you also enjoy birding at home in the UK?

I cannot claim to be an expert but yes, I love our British and European birds.  The closer you look at them, the more amazing they are.  I get particularly excited at the arrival of swallows, cuckoos and (when in France and Germany) bee-eaters and white storks, knowing that they have journeyed thousands of miles to get here. I always wonder if I have watched those very birds before in East Africa.

I believe you also have experience of foraging for wild foods? What has been your greatest/tastiest ‘find’ and what would you strongly advise people to avoid if they want to forage for themselves?

Our ancestors were hunter gatherers and there is still something incredibly satisfying about finding your own food in the wild.  The most astonishing ‘forage’ was recently in Tanzania, when I went out with a local chap to find chanterelle mushrooms.  In Europe they are delicious and highly prized apricot yellow fungi, but in Africa they come in a whole range of colours from palest yellow, through pinks and orange, to an eye-burning scarlet – but they are just as delicious as the European species.  It can only be a matter of time before somebody realises the commercial potential of these abundant, delicious and gorgeous, mushrooms.  But the caution – unsurprisingly – is to make sure you always rely on local expertise.  Even a good book may not be a 100% reliable guide and, with about 20% of fungi mildly to deadly poisonous, there is always a risk of misidentification.

‘This was a huge beetle I picked up in the Tsavo park, painted from the specimen.  Everything in that park is bigger than usual – the elephants, the lions, snakes and especially the insects.’

You are entirely self-taught as an artist – which techniques/materials do you prefer?

I use a variety of techniques, and I am now most comfortable with watercolour, but not in a traditional way.  I will incorporate the sap of fruit trees to give the paint a gloss and sometimes even use diluted household emulsion paint.  The most important thing is to have the right paper for the right painting, as this will transform the way the image develops.  I do paint in oils, but it takes a few days to adjust to the different way the paint needs to be applied. The good thing with oils is that the scale is satisfyingly big.

Do you paint from life or photographs or a combination of both?

Both, but it is much more satisfying to paint from life.  The trouble is that in order to paint (say) an elephant from life, you need to spend days just watching and sketching them, which seems an indulgence when only on safari for a week or two.  In the same time my modern digital cameras can capture thousands of separate images, which enables me to use a dozen angles to build up one painting when I get home.     

Do you also enjoy learning about the subjects of your art? I know you have a keen interest in flora – that’s a subject with almost infinite possibilities for discovery. Is there a flower or plant that you have yet to feature in your art that you would most like to ‘encounter’ and capture on paper/canvas?

Of course.  Most of us have lost the patience to look closely at something as simple as a flower, or feather or shell, and I think much of the enjoyment of painting them is that it makes you spend time studying the details.  I do love wild orchids, which are not only such weird plants but have amazing relationships with the insects which pollenate them.  On my last trip to Tanzania I was lucky enough to be guided by an expert (thank you Tribes’ Christine!) and I was completely blown away by the sheer variety of colour and form.  If I could do a really successful painting of just one of them, I would be thrilled beyond measure – this is one subject which really has to be painted from a living specimen.

Tulips – painted from life.

While on your travels, are you always looking for something that could become the subject of a painting?

Every second of the day.  Observation is the most important skill to master as an artist – far more so than the mere technical ability to handle a pencil and paintbrush, and I am constantly looking at the shapes of trees, leaves and flowers; on the way the light catches the surfaces, and working out the colours which hide in the shadows.   Water  is especially fascinating since it reflects, distorts and shapes objects as well as being a subject in its own right.  But my next challenge,  since I have met him several times in Ruaha, is to do justice to ‘Tom’, a local bull elephant who is as curious about people as we are of him.  We have spent hours watching each other less than 10 yards apart.

Of the paintings you have created from your travels, which has given you the greatest satisfaction as an artist, and which other work (it might be the same one of course!) captures a particularly strong memory?

Hmm – nothing I have painted has ever been perfect, but I was pleased with the Koi carp and butterflies (all on my website).  I am also pleased with the leopard (shown at the head of this page) because the safari guides who have now become good friends (and are highly critical of my work) can recognise the actual animal.  We saw him walking along the road towards us as we drove back to the camp one evening, and he took his time, watching us with those astonishing eyes.  He had been wounded in a fight and flopped onto a rock in full view of us for about an hour to recover his breath.  We were alone, with no other vehicle in sight throughout.

I painted these charaxes butterflies years ago – it is really hard to get the wings matching!

As you say on your website, in your ‘spare’ time you are also a partner in a London law firm. Do you specialise in a particular area of the law? And how does that career sit alongside your more artistic activities?

I am a litigation lawyer, which means I spend time dealing with commercial and media disputes in court, and a number of my cases became very well-known news stories in their time.  Clients can be very demanding, but it is possible to keep up other interests although it is not easy, particularly when family demands also take up time.  I am lucky enough to have a purpose-built studio to which I can escape – and a VERY understanding wife.

Your already rather full life now includes a new element – you are writing a book on the Victorian explorer James Jameson. His is not a particularly well-known name, in spite of his family connections to the whiskey family, although he is linked to a fairly grisly episode involving cannibals. What drew you to this subject, and do you feel Jameson has been poorly served by history?

This is a really extraordinary project, which started as I was rummaging through the Natural History Museum’s historic bird skin collection looking for specimens to paint.  Jameson was one of the men who went with Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”)  into the heart of Africa in 1887 and he died on the Congo river the following year.

He collected a number of birds which are still in the Museum and two species are named after him.  On 11 May 1888 he found himself a witness to the murder and dismemberment of a child for the purposes of being eaten, and he caused an international scandal when news filtered out of Africa that he had sat and painted six sketches of the entire process.

I have rediscovered his original diaries and papers which are full of amazing drawings and paintings which have never before been published.  My interest is actually in the expedition, not just Jameson, and I have uncovered some truly jaw-dropping stories.  Jameson was not a bad man, but there is no doubt he did have a very unhealthy interest in cannibalism.  Frankly he was not alone in that, and many things were collected by those early travellers for our museums which we would find very offensive nowadays.  I am trying not to judge these men, but simply want to get to the facts which have largely been obscured by time.

Emerald cuckoo skins – painted from the specimens in the Natural History Museum with their labels on.

You have travelled with Tribes eight times since 2013, always to Tanzania. Why is your love for that particular country so great?

I did not know Tanzania well when I was living in Kenya and Uganda, but was encouraged to visit by Tracy of Tribes when, in 2013, I had just finished a very tough case and needed to get away on my own for a few days.  What I discovered was an astonishingly varied country which was far less visited than it deserves to be. Most tourists go to the North – Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Kilimanjaro – but I was persuaded to go to the southern parks and fell in love with them.

I am not a ‘bucket-list’ traveller – for me, it is better to get to know a few places well than visit a lot of places superficially – but there is so much to see in Tanzania that every trip has been an absolute revelation. I cannot get enough of  watching elephants, which have such strong social and family  bonds, but actually the most important thing with any wildlife is to take time watching, rather than just taking a few photos and rushing to tick the next of the ‘Big Five’ off the list.  Even impala, zebras and warthogs are worth spending time with.

What has been your most memorable wildlife encounter on your travels with Tribes, and why?

Absolutely no doubt about it – I went with a friend this year to Mahale to trek with chimpanzees.  The rains had come early, the flight to reach the park through massive storms was more exciting than I had expected,  but we were the only two guests in our luxurious camp and were incredibly well looked after.  I thought that seeing the chimps would be special, but NOTHING had prepared me for the reality.  We were in the middle of an  extended family of about 35 individuals who totally ignored us and got on with their daily ‘soap-opera’ lives with all their jealousies, bickering, sexual politics, love affairs, fights over social status, teenage rebellions and naughty tricks played out in front of us.  It was a difficult place to get to – three internal flights and an hour and a half boat trip to get to the camp and then daily treks of a couple of hours just to see the chimps – but it was an experience you cannot put a price on.  If anybody asks me to recommend a safari experience they will not forget, this is it.

‘I like the impala in the act of jumping away.’

For the last four years your Tribes’ trips have been organised by our consultant Christine, who tells me that each year you set her yet more challenging trips to organise. Clearly you’re not someone for a straightforward ‘package’ trip?

I hold my hands up to that.  I am well beyond the point when I need to be driven for miles to see yet another lion asleep under a bush, but I do like to stop and watch birds and animals big and small relax and go about their daily business.  I am fascinated by the plants and insects, love the snakes, tortoises and reptiles and, if there is the opportunity to see something unusual, I will jump at the chance.

I was amazed by the Uduzungwa mountains, and have visited Kitulo plateau and a ranch on the remote and utterly tourist-free Kipingere range just to see the orchids and some very rare birds. People visit Mahale for the chimps, but on the treks through the jungles to reach them we saw amazing things which even the guides were at a loss to identify.  Last year I included some dives off the coral reefs of Mafia Island which blew me away – I can see why some people revisit these reefs dozens of times.

I understand that on your trips you have encountered various challenges which Christine has helped you with – she mentioned floods, bridges being washed away and flight cancellations?

It can be challenging to reach the out-of-the-way places I like to visit, precisely because the tourist infrastructure is limited or non-existent, which is why Christine’s (and Tracy’s before her) knowledge and experience have been absolutely essential when I have planned my trips.  Christine has local knowledge, which has got me staying in a range of accommodation from the $800 a night camps to the $5 a night local guest houses.

I have stayed in wonderful places I would never have even known about (the Chili Farm at Morogoro springs to mind) and I have been met and looked after by her friends and contacts in a way which would simply not have been possible with a standard travel company.  Specialist local experts have guided me around the historical sites I needed to visit for my research and I am absolutely sure I could never have managed to plan half of it on my own.

The best thing (as far as I am concerned) is knowing that when the going gets tough, I can be absolutely confident that somebody will make sure I am all right.  So, when a camp or bridges get washed away, I do not panic because I know I will be fine and there will a bed and a beer waiting for me somewhere.  In my trips I have had at least four separate camps flooded or washed away, countless bridges down and travel plans rearranged at the last minute – I hasten to add it is still a rare thing but, even when it has happened, I have been kept safe and well looked after.

‘I was given boxes of Kenya shells by a collector.  They are beautiful, but it is so much better to see the live shells on the reef.’

Where else in the world would you most like to travel to, and why?

I have still not scratched the surface of Tanzania, so I imagine I will be going back for some time to come.  I am very – VERY – tempted to visit all parts of South America, but will have to learn a whole new lot of birds and animals, new languages and get familiar with new places all over again, which will certainly take time.  If they only had elephants…

Finally, do you have any subjects for paintings on your ‘bucket list’?

I have done a few paintings of bee-eaters which I absolutely love to see all over East Africa, but there are a number still to paint.  They are such a brightly coloured family – who could imagine a bird which is crimson, pink, sky blue and cinnamon?  Or scarlet, green, Prussian blue and chestnut? I haven’t painted Boehm’s bee eater which is not quite as gaudy, but is still a fantastic little bird.  And I would love to tackle a big bird of prey.

My grateful thanks to Tribes for making it possible to enjoy such wonderful and life affirming experiences.

‘Young giraffes are so curious, with huge, beautiful eyes.’

All the images on this page are ©Marcus Rutherford. To learn more about his artwork, please visit his website: