Painting Sir David Attenborough with David Cobley RP

/ Royal Society of Portrait Painters


The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition is open now until Saturday 13 May.

David Cobley, member of the RP, has created an incredible portrait of Sir David Attenborough. The Study of his painting for the BBC, is featured within the exhibition. The BBC approached Annabel Elton, head of commissions at the RP, who advised them and helpfully guided them through a selection process, until they found the ideal artist to work with.

We asked David Cobley about his experience of painting the legendary Sir David Attenborough, and spoke to him about his work more broadly:

David Cobley 

It must have been amazing to be selected to paint Sir David Attenborough! How did you prepare in advance? 

As soon as I heard the BBC was thinking of asking me to carry out the commission, I did everything I could to get it. I dropped what I was doing to trawl through hundreds of photos and videos of him online, looking for something that showed him communicating his knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural world. By the following morning I was able to send Annabel a couple of mockups to show the BBC what I thought might work.

An early photoshop composition mockup

How many sittings were there? 

I met Sir David at his home in Richmond with Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History, in early 2019. We were there for a couple of hours. When you speak to Sir David he looks you in the eye and listens to you with great intensity - as if you were the only creature left on earth after a major catastrophe! I had a camera with me and took one or two photos of him inside the house and in the garden. I suppose I already knew that I would be basing my portrait on images of him already out there on film, so it was more to record my visit. It was the only time I had with him until the unveiling at Broadcasting House earlier this year.

You have captured him in a very animated way as if he is in the middle of telling the viewer about an amazing animal discovery - how did you decide on this pose? 

Isn’t he always in the middle of telling us something interesting? The BBC wanted a portrait that celebrated Sir David’s contribution to broadcasting. When I shut my eyes and thought of him, I saw him in the act of explaining why this or that aspect of the natural world was so ‘extraordinary’. I could almost hear his voice.

David Cobley’s study and portrait, in his studio, November 2019

How did you decide what to surround Sir David with? 

I would have surrounded him with every one of the animals, plants and insects he has brought to our screens if there had been room. It was important to have at least one creature that was representative of the air, of the land and of the sea. The orangutan seemed particularly important, as the logging of ancient rainforests has had such a devastating impact on its habitat, and because we are such close relatives. The same forests are also home to the brightly coloured Sun Conure - its posture suggesting it has been startled by the fall of another tree nearby.

What have been people’s reactions to the painting and has Sir David Attenborough commented on it? 

Everyone seems to like it very much. Sir David took the trouble of writing to thank me, and said that he was flattered that I included Darwin’s notebook in the composition.

How do you go about capturing someone’s likeness? 

Drawing is key. Anyone interested in rendering the physical world in two dimensions has to start first by looking, and then by drawing. I could go on at great length about why drawing from life is so important. Leave your phone, camera and other digital devices at home, pick up a pencil and paper and go outside and start drawing what you see. It's all there, before your very eyes!

You have a wonderful record of impressive commissions, which portraits have been your favourite to do? 

Each one has been special and I have enjoyed them all. For the brief time you are working on a portrait, you and the sitter become the very best of friends. It is remarkable how open we can be with each other. It was wonderful to spend time backstage with Sir Ken Dodd. I had a unique insight into the life of a comedian at the top of his game, as well as a glimpse of the man behind the performer, but working on the one of Sir David has been particularly memorable, for so many reasons.