Like worshippers to the throne we approached "Little Chantry". Bradford-on-Avon bustled at the bottom of the hill oblivious to the moment - the big reveal....Would Ray be home? We parked precariously in the one way track that passed for a street, later earning the ire of neighbours - who in their very English way told us what they thought and signed their note politely "Thank you". Only in England!
On first approach we thought Ray and Carolyn had abandoned their home of 30 plus years... but no, neither of them are gardeners and it showed. To our great delight however they were home and hugely welcoming.
I had first met Ray Harris Ching when I was in my early 20s - he contacted me about my painting 'In Loving Memory'. As we both lived in Melbourne, only a short walk apart, I haunted his studio for a year, absorbing what I could before he left for the UK. He was already a highly acclaimed artist with several classic bird art books to his name making him a household name. I was in awe! Ray suggested I follow him to England as he said I could not paint great art unless I had seen it. Within a year I had set up my studio in London and we continued our very close association for the next few years.
Ray is a recluse, with an unpredictable nature, so when we arrived unannounced at his door, we were unsure of our welcome. If he was painting we would have been told to 'Fuck off'. Being a Kiwi by birth with years of Australian influence his command of the baser English language was comprehensive.
Not having seen Ray for 20 years I was shocked at how small he was...but he remains as feisty and full of stories as in the early days. As we perched on a sofa drinking tea in his lounge-room, he told us about the first time his good mate David Attenborough had visited him there. David had sat on one of the sofas - the superbly uncomfortable one. On his next visit he nimbly bypassed the sofa-from-hell and plopped into an armchair - much to Ray’s amusement!
Accompanied by Ray’s beloved cats we had ‘The Grand Tour’....my 3rd time but Nicky’s first. Despite Ray’s assurances that a skip load of papers had gone out of the house recently, it was much as I remembered. Overflowing with stuffed birds, finished work, sketches and well..."stuff". It reminded me forcefully of my studio before Nicky invades for a tidy up...but his floor is marginally cleaner!
One of the sketches Ray pulled out was an old one of a Diana monkey he'd done for ‘The New Ark’. It was based on reference photos I had taken for Ray. I reminded him of a series of owl photos I'd taken for him at the London Zoo to finish up a roll of film (remember that stuff?). These became the basis for his picture "Nine Owls" which ended up in the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn Abbey. Ray regaled us with a story of being invited by the 14th Duke and his wife Henrietta Tiarks to spend a weekend at Woburn. Ray, being Ray, refused the invitation but settled on an afternoon visit instead (I could see that even now Carolyn was a bit miffed by this!)
The Duke had had a stroke, so the Duchess led Ray and Carolyn around for most of the visit. Henrietta was down-to-earth and great fun. On their tour they walked past a tour group to check out a painting that interested them. Lifting the red rope they ducked under to get a closer look. Ray remembers that one of the American tourists commented "That must be the Duchess" to which her companion replied “Oh no, not dressed like that!"
Ray is still an Australasian at heart, with scant regard for the 'Uppers' as he calls the aristocrats who own so much of his work. However he and Carolyn are now UK citizens, such is their love for the art and culture of their adopted country.
After several hours of catching up and swapping stories, we left. As we were leaving I handed him my business card with contact details I know he’ll never use. As we were doing a 58 point turn to exit the goat track he rushed up to us and congratulated me on the Gouldian Finch painting that I use on my card...he'd not seen my Grassfinches of Australia book, from which the image came. I was hugely chuffed to get approval from the Grand Master of bird art. It book-ended our relationship beautifully!