With a family history steeped in art and animals, Coldstream’s Amanda Lithgow chose a familiar path.
I come to a set of tall poplars and turn into the driveway of Flowerfield, past the polo fields and up the rise to the white homestead settled peacefully into the landscape.
I step out of the car to be greeted with suspicion by Amanda Lithgow’s two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs, standing as high as my waist, with heads up regarding me haughtily.
The equestrian artist who describes herself as “half farmer, half artist” reassures me that they mean no harm and shuts them outside, as we look out across the fields that make up the Lithgow family farm near Coldstream. “I love the mix of farming and art,” Amanda explains. “I like the challenge of farming and also the challenge of interpreting a photo of a horse or dog and capturing the expression in a drawing.”
It’s no surprise that she became an equestrian artist. There have been Lithgows at Flowerfield since Amanda’s great-grandfather arrived from Northern Ireland in 1842. Her grandfather, Frederick Brown Lithgow, and her father, Frederick John, were both masters of the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club, and she first went fox hunting at 13. Her father was president and a player with the Yarra Valley Polo Club based at Flowerfield.
Her mother Elizabeth’s family was well-known in the racing industry and bred thoroughbred horses at Wonga Park. Artistic talent runs in the blood too. John Lithgow was a talented sculptor, but his father died early so he spent his life as a farmer and horseman.
Amanda’s talent for riding and art shone early. She thinks she probably first sat on a horse at the age of two, and remembers riding her first pony, a hairy little Shetland named Tiny. In Grade 2 at Yering Primary School, she began selling her pencil sketches of horses’ heads for five cents each. She continued riding and kept her dream of being an equine artist alive through the following school years at Tintern and then Geelong Grammar, where she received full marks for her life drawing folio. After finishing high school she specialised in print-making and drawing for her fine art degree at the Chisholm Institute of Technology.
Amanda then returned to the Yarra Valley, where she began to do the occasional portrait of dogs or horses for friends. Before long she was taking a small display marquee to horse events, and started to build up a clientele for her pencil drawings.
“My sister Julie was very outgoing and I was the shy one, so she would talk to the clients, and we worked well together,” Amanda recalls with a smile.
For the past 30 years Amanda has been doing portraits, specialising in horses and dogs, but venturing to cats and cattle as well. She maintains that a thorough knowledge of the horse is vital, but being able to switch from what you know to what you actually see is the key to drawing reality. It is this love and ability that makes her artwork so admired.
She took up sculpting as another side to her art. Working with a talented sculptor in Moorabbin, she learnt the art of the lost-wax casting process and making plaster moulds to do her bronze sculptures. This very time-consuming art is something Amanda would like to keep doing in the future.
In 2011 the sisters were having dinner with friends at a polo social evening at Coldstream when they were given the chance of a lifetime.
“They were talking about a 10-day horse-riding safari in India and there were only a couple of places left,” Amanda said. “While I’d travelled a lot, India wasn’t even a place I wanted to see, but Julie and I found ourselves agreeing to go before we’d even worked out what to do with our children!”
They found themselves at Nawalgarh in the rural heart of Rajasthan as guests of cousins Durga and Devendra Singh, who breed the rare Marwari horses, with their distinctive inward-turning ear tips. The hardy Marwari are descended from native Indian ponies crossed with Arabian horses, and have been used throughout India’s history as cavalry horses, renowned for their loyalty and bravery in battle.
Amanda recounted some of her story for Equestrian Life magazine: “We developed great respect for the Marwari horse, with its characteristic pointed ears which sometimes meet and its spirited hardy ability to endure endless riding each day. From the colour, the food, the people and their culture, the village children and the animals, to a wonderful group of friends on the safari … It has been a life-changing experience for me – India has opened my heart and eyes to a new world.’’
Horse-riding is a large part of Amanda’s life, and she has competed on many horses over the years with great success. She is a member of the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Horse Riding Club, which is joining forces with the Lilydale Pony Club, the Yarra Valley Dressage Club and the Yarra Valley Showjumping Club at the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club.
She says being an artist makes her more observant, and she’s quick to notice the distinctive physical characteristics and facial expressions of the horses and dogs she draws. With a set of Staedtler pencils at her side Amanda is able to bring beloved horses or pets to life. Commissions for her portraits come mainly from Victoria and throughout Australia, but she has clients in England, South Africa and the United States.
“I’ve done some lovely show hacks in the UK and I love doing dogs as well. They’re all so different and very expressive,” she said.
Each drawing takes between four and seven days to complete, depending on the size and complexity. “I usually take photos of the subject but sometimes due to location or the animal being deceased I have to use other people’s photos. This is sometimes a challenge, working from snapshots.”
“The initial outline takes time, but once that is done I can draw at any hour, and I love drawing at night because I can get really involved in the picture.”
Her lifelong bond with horses will continue to provide the pleasure and passion alongside her art. “Every time you take a horse out for a ride there’s excitement or disappointment or exhilaration, because you’re working with an animal that presents new challenges every time.”
I sense Amanda will continue to relish life’s challenges, whether it is working on the family’s property, training a young horse, sculpting or capturing the expression on the face of someone’s beloved pet. It’s in her blood.
WORDS Judy Kennedy
PHOTOGRAPHS Celeste Faltyn