A lifelong love of animals and wildlife has been the inspiration for one of the region’s best kept cultural secrets and a multimillion pound business success that is literally sending greetings across the world from Derwentside.
Brought up near Shotley Bridge on the picturesque Northumberland / County Durham border, artist Alex Clark has loved the countryside and animals all of her life. As a young teenager, she would exhibit her animal drawings and paintings at the annual Snod’s Edge Art Show little thinking that in future her work would be a familiar sight all across the globe on greetings cards, pottery, notepads and a whole host of other collectable and functional items.
Alex’s artwork is now a worldwide phenomenon with her stylised, quirky interpretation of farm animals, birds, cats and dogs and other wildlife instantly recognisable in gift shops and major outlets by characteristic rosy cheeks and beaming smiles on the animal’s faces.
Those beaming faces now grace wholesalers and retailers all across the world including Canada, Australia and New Zealand but it is in the UK where 75 per cent of Alex’s work is sold in the highly competitive greetings cards and gifts sector.
A huge ambassador for the North East, Alex studied Biology at Newcastle University and sold her artwork to fund her degree mainly by painting pet portraits. After graduating, the lure of the paint brush was still very strong and she focused on selling her work in craft fairs. The small local craft fairs migrated to large national events as her work grew in popularity.
“I was painting pet portraits and working on commissions for fine art wildlife paintings and I found that this was taking up a lot of my time. I was in the process of opening a shop in Weardale to supplement my sales at craft fairs and realised that I didn’t have enough art work to display in the shop,” said Alex.
“I developed the idea of humanising the animal paintings by giving them huge smiles and rosy cheeks. This type of artwork took less time to complete and the public loved the quirky look of the animals. It helped me to fully stock the shop and I found that these new designs were selling as fast as I could paint them. I even had my mum helping me to deal with the growing demand for my work by delivering stock to our customers.”
The journey from selling her art in craft fairs in Durham and Northumberland to today’s multimillion pound global business with a 15,000-sq. ft. warehouse in Consett and retail outlets in Corbridge and Stanhope has been testament to her talent as an artist and designer and the business acumen of her long-term partner and co-director Erik Nielsen.
Erik’s sales pedigree was first established when he ran a reproduction art print and card distribution business in Scotland and Northern Ireland. His knowledge of the business has helped to propel millions of units of Alex’s work into homes all across the world. The couple met in 2002 when Erik acted as her Scottish agent where he quickly identified the huge potential popularity of Alex’s work. Working closely with Alex he helped develop a strategy to grow the business from cottage industry to global entity.
“We very quickly went from a turnover of £100k to around £1m simply by having the right product and getting the optimum sales packages to our customers. Our range appeals to everyone from children to grandparents and wholesalers are desperate for Alex’s latest designs,” said Erik.
The Alex Clark brand is steadily expanding with some 3000 designs across all product ranges and the business is currently turning over around £2.5m per annum. A remarkable achievement especially as the growth of the whole business has been self-funded by the couple themselves.
Despite being such a global phenomenon, the shops and warehouse all retain a cottage industry family feel. Alex employs more than 20 staff in warehousing, packaging, admin and sales roles and her mum who helped her out in the early days still enjoys working in the Corbridge retail outlet.
The future for the business looks as rosy as the cheeks on Alex’s animals with Alex and Erik currently showing the latest designs and products at trade fairs. They have also just released a very special Christmas Card for the National Trust featuring one of their three beloved family dogs.
“We’re a nation of animal lovers and I’m really grateful that so many people appreciate the artwork that I do with animals. I really do have one of the best jobs in the world working with a great team in a lovely part of the world that has so influenced my work,” said Alex.