Sophie Walbeoffe-Simpkin paints dazzling tales in artistic books

Sophie Walbeoffe 4

Sophie Walbeoffe's 'Grazing elephant bull' oil painting at her studio in Karen, Nairobi on June 1, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Sophie Walbeoffe-Simpkin has to be the most prolific painter I know.

One might assume that’s because she’s renowned for ‘painting with both hands’. But that cannot explain the way she can paint anything from dogs and sand dunes, birds and bees, dhows and donkeys, to the ceremonial coronation of UK’s King Charles, the series of which friends transformed into elegant table mats which have sold well in the UK.

But artists rarely gain much from such commercial ventures, suggests Sophie who also admits she does it for the fun of it.

“My favourite art instructor told us we must ‘Make painting your best friend.’ That way, you’re bound to love it and have fun with it;” which is what this effervescent woman invariably does. It's also one reason she is such an insatiable painter, whether living in Kenya where I met her recently at her studio in Karen.

I was fortunate to find her since she travels a lot, always to paint as she did in Jerusalem where she spent four years learning about life in the Middle East, with its complex mix of cultures, politics, and artistic traditions. This was long before the current crisis in Palestine, but even then, her husband Piers was working in Gaza for the Red Cross. She also spends time in London, where she’s originally from.

Having lived in Kenya for the last 30 years, Sophie’s last Nairobi exhibition was one she curated right at the outset of the Covid-19 shutdown. It was a charity show, ‘Artists against Hunger’, and it helped raise Sh10 million to assist several local aid agencies working with underprivileged children. In addition to the Covid show, Sophie tells us of several other solo and group exhibitions. She’s participated in those, thanks primarily to her London-based gallery, the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery.

And in recent days, she has been busy making artistic books. The first one was autobiographical entitled Painting With Both Hands. In it, she revealed her love of watercolours as well as her new-found affection for illustrating books.

Sophie Walbeoffe's 'In the Jungle' oil painting at her studio in Karen, Nairobi on June 1, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

She wrote of how she rarely uses photographs of the places or people she wants to paint. Instead, she sets up an open-air studio on the spot, or she sketches quickly on the spot, aiming to capture the ambience, quality of light at that particular moment, and the mood of the people or animals that she intends to paint.

Then, after her first book came Impressions of Amboseli, which she co-produced with Cynthia Moss over the next four years. Cynthia is an esteemed animal scientist and researcher who has lived among the elephants of Amboseli for decades.

Sophie’s paintings and illustrations of not just the elephants but all the creatures in Amboseli National Park made the book as much an artistic achievement as an academic account of Cynthia’s life among these gorgeous roving creatures.

Then came Lamu, a gem of a book that included a whole series of watercolours revealing all the elegant fauna and flora around the island. The book itself had been commissioned by her dear friend, the German restaurateur, Herbert Menzer. Herbert had ‘accidentally’ stumbled upon Lamu in his travels and fell in love with Shela village where he lives for six months a year.

Meeting Sophie and seeing the quality of her art, especially the watercolours of Shela, he couldn’t resist bankrolling the book which came out in 2018.

Her next project was based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. Her topic was based on letters her dear mum had left her after she’d passed on a few years ago. They’d come to her directly from Kipling himself since Sophie’s mum was the author’s god-daughter.

Sophie Walbeoffe's 'Nesting birds' oil painting at her studio in Karen, Nairobi on June 1, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

In the letters, Kipling told the mum all about the Just So stories. Sophie took them to be a sign from her mum that she was meant to do something special with them. So, first, she illustrated the stories; then, she went all around UK schools reading them to school children, most of whom had never been introduced to the Kipling’s whimsical stories before.

Her current project is producing another children’s book about a friendship between her dog and an elephant. Entitled Pepper and Poncho, it’s inspired by her own little Dachshund and all the elephants she painted in Amboseli while working with Cynthia Moss.

That book was about to go to press as we spoke, suggesting Sophie is already working on her next project--a series of beautiful jungle-like paintings of Kenya’s flora and fauna that the public will see before they too become the basis for her next book.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.