The remarkable effect of a ‘tigers in torment’ story on a Matlock artist

Anna-Louise Pickering and Virginia McKenna co-sign prints for the June exhibition.

January 11, 1987, and a headline in the Mail on Sunday – ‘Tigers in torment’ – leaps out at wildlife artist and conservationist Pollyanna Pickering, who has since died. The following article told of the plight of six young circus tigers being kept in horrendous conditions. A reporter had investigated the story following a tip-off from a supporter of Born Free, a charity founded by the actress Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers. Pollyanna’s daughter, Anna-Louise Pickering, takes up the  remarkable story… 

THOSE three words – Tigers in torment – also began Pollyanna’s association with the Born Free Foundation, which was to last the rest of her life. Thirty-seven years later, Born Free is marking its 40th anniversary – and Pollyanna’s paintings are continuing to help to raise funds for their work to stop the exploitation of animals, with an exhibition staged in her private gallery near Matlock from June 22-30 inclusive.

Three years following the arrival of the rescued tigers in India, Pollyanna was invited to travel to their home in the remarkable reserve of Bannerghatta.  Although the five tigers lived within an enclosure, it covered 15 acres and, as in the open jungle, the jeep Pollyanna was driving had to stay on designated tracks. The tigers had plenty of room to hide from human visitors should they wish to.

Then, a marvellous moment: the jeep pulled into a clearing, and two of the tigers were lying close to the trail, their striped coats a rich golden orange under the heat of the Indian sun.  Pollyanna was able to sketch for as long as she liked.  Subsequently she staged an exhibition – An Indian Summer – full of studies and paintings of these beautiful big cats which raised funds for the ongoing care of the tigers in the sanctuary.  The signature painting of the exhibition featured a tiger named McKenna after Zoocheck’s founder.  

During the expedition, Pollyanna’s daughter, Anna-Louise, was presented with probably the most unusual 21st birthday present ever received – an orphaned sloth bear cub!  He had been found abandoned on the mountainside by local villagers, who knew it was a special birthday for her, they took it as a sign the cub should be presented to Anna-Louise.  She named the cub ‘Bhima’ – which means ‘The Strong One’ after a character in Indian mythology and the duo ultimately paid for his transfer and care at the Bannerghatta reserve.  His full story has since been written in the book The Eye of the Tiger, which includes the full account of their travels in Southern India, with a foreword written by Dame Virginia McKenna, the founder of The Born Free Foundation.

In 1966, Virginia McKenna, DBE, and her late husband Bill Travers, MBE, starred in the classic wildlife film Born Free. The film told the true story of conservationists Joy and George Adamson who rescued a lioness cub called Elsa and successfully returned her to the wild. For most people, The Born Free Foundation is most closely associated with lions.  But Pollyanna’s journey with Born Free began with the story of six tigers ….. and the creation of the charity was, in fact, inspired by an elephant named Pole Pole.

Following the success of the film, Virginia and Bill went on to make several further wildlife films together, including in 1969 An Elephant Called Slowly, starring an elephant calf called Pole Pole (pronounced Poly Poly). When filming was over, Pole Pole was gifted to London Zoo by the Kenyan government. Virginia and Bill did everything they could to prevent this, but Pole Pole was sent to London. In 1982, Virginia and Bill went to visit Pole Pole at the zoo. Pole Pole, in clear distress, remembered Virginia and Bill and stretched out her trunk to reach them. Virginia and Bill launched a campaign to give Pole Pole a better life but in 1983, aged 16, Pole Pole died. Determined that her death would not be in vain, in 1984, Virginia, Bill and their eldest son Will launched Born Free.  They  work tirelessly to ensure that all wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, are treated with compassion and respect. 

From the outset Pollyanna realised that their aims and ethos were closely aligned to her own – in particular the fact that alongside their conservation work to ensure the survival of threatened species in the wild and protect natural habitats, they never forgot the individual animal, and were equally dedicated to alleviating individual pain and suffering through their rescue work. 

“They never forgot the individual animal, and were equally dedicated to alleviating individual pain and suffering through their rescue work.”

Following her visit to paint the tigers in India, Pollyanna would go on to visit Born Free projects in South Africa and Ethiopia, and stage fund-raising exhibitions of the artwork inspired by her visits. She became a close friend of their founder, Dame Virginia McKenna, bonding through their shared love of animals.  

Pollyanna created limited-edition prints and Christmas cards for the charity, and donated original work to their fund-raising auctions. She even went on to paint a life-sized lion sculpture for their Pride in the City event – which will also be on display at the exhibition in Matlock. Pollyanna went on to become a patron of the Foundation. 

Following her unexpected death in 2018, the charity named a rescued cheetah cub in her memory – a perfect tribute for an artist who had reached the pinnacle of success in her chosen field while achieving international respect for her commitment to environmental conservation. 

Throughout her career, Pollyanna was always most pleased when her art could be used to help raise funds for causes close to her heart – her work has been commissioned and published by every major wildlife art charity in the UK, including WWF, The RSPB and many other international organisations. 

In 2001, she established The Pollyanna Pickering Foundation, which continues to raise funds for conservation and animal welfare worldwide However, the most enduring relationship she had with any outside organisation was with The Born Free Foundation. 

Pollyanna had already started work on a collection of paintings with the idea of staging an exhibition to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the charity in 2019.  Sadly, of course, this event did not go ahead as planned. 

Her daughter Anna-Louise, president of The Pollyanna Pickering Foundation, has since kept this collection of artwork in storage and it is being shown exclusively for the first time in this exhibition.

Pollyanna returned to Joy Adamson’s original book for inspiration for new portraits of Elsa – several of which include text from Born Free within the artwork. There is a study of the African elephant in memory of Pole Pole – alongside previously unseen studies of lions, giraffes and meerkats. A very generous bequest from a collector of Pollyanna’s work has provided further paintings which have not been on public display for many years. One of these paintings – Elsa’s Pride – has also been chosen as one of three limited-edition prints to launched exclusively at the event, co-signed by Dame Virginia McKenna.

Also on display will be Pollyanna’s ranges of greetings cards, fine art and limited-edition prints, and a wide variety of giftware featuring her work -–including stationery, china mugs, cross-stitch kits, signed sets of her postage stamps issued in Africa, and first day covers for the Royal Mail. 

Paper crafting kits will also be available – as launched live on television!  There will even be a sneak preview of next year’s charity Christmas cards and calendars for 2025. Visitors to the gallery will have the opportunity to purchase prize draw tickets to win a unique hand-retouched giclee print. Tea and coffee will be available throughout. 

Editor’s Note: The Born Free exhibition will be held at the Gallery, Brookvale House, Oaker, Matlock, DE4 2JJ on June 22-30 (10am-6pm each day,  admission free). Full details and directions at