‘I can’t think of any more talented pastel portraitist, either of people or of animals, since the Second World War. His gifts were sublime.’ (Chris Beetles, quoted in The Sherston Cliffhanger, May 2016, page 14)
The figurative artist, Neil Forster, developed a particular talent for pastel portraiture of humans, horses and dogs. Neil Forster was born in Calcutta on 29 January 1939, the eldest of four children, the father of whom worked for a tea plantation group. At the end of the Second World War, Forster and his siblings left India for Sussex with their mother, while their father stayed on in India until his retirement.
Forster showed early promise as an artist while attending Hurst Court Preparatory School for Boys, in Ore, Sussex. He won a junior painting prize, which was sponsored by the Royal Academy of Arts, and his reward was lunch with Sir Alfred Munnings, the Academy’s President. He went on to Bradfield College, Berkshire, where he developed a love of cricket and won a scholarship to the Byam Shaw School of Art, in London.
However, his studies there were cut short by a serious road accident, which, after months in hospital, left him with one leg shorter than the other and persistent back pain.
Between 1960 and 1968, Forster exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1963, he held a solo show in Midhurst that encouraged him to devote himself full-time to his art. So he settled at a studio-apartment in Glebe Place, Chelsea, and supplemented his income as an artist with work as a bartender. In 1966, he went to the South of France to help launch the gallery of a friend, and stayed on for a year. This led him to begin a nomadic pattern of life, in which he travelled between houses in Spain, France and Ireland, painting portraits of his hosts and the surrounding landscapes. He was also commissioned by a member of the Kuwaiti royal family to paint camels, horses and hawks.
In 1967, Forster began a close friendship with Mark Birley, the son of the painter, Sir Oswald Birley, and the founder of Annabel’s night club. Birley became his most loyal patron, and commissioned portraits of almost every dog his family owned up until his death in 2007.
Forster fell in love with Julia, the second wife of Sir Nicholas Nuttall, while he was painting her portrait. They settled in Norfolk together and then, in 1974, moved near Ronda, in Spain. However, their relationship soon came to an end, and Forster took up residence on the coast, where he painted portraits and murals for almost a decade.
On his return to England in the early 1980s, Forster lived again in Norfolk. In 1985, he moved to Sherston, in Wiltshire, where he rented Home Farm from the Earl of Suffolk. Eight months later, he bought both a house and a barn in the village, converting the latter into a studio. There he got to know Prince Charles, who lived nearby at Highgrove, and gave him lessons in watercolour and accompanied him on painting holidays to Scotland. In turn, his royal patron gave him generous support. Significant among his exhibitions at this time was at solo show held at Chris Beetles Gallery in 1990.
In the year 2000, Forster married Penny Mitchell, and they lived happily until his death on 24 February 2016.
Further reading: [obituary], Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2016