Sitting watching the world go by on a bench in St Ann’s Well Park in Brighton, Sam Toft was stuck by a terrier stood perfectly still staring back at her
The brown and white dog was being called back by his owner. His name was ‘Small Dog’ and he left such an impression that she went home and drew him.
That was 15 years ago and Sam was an up and coming artist, working part time in restaurants and shops but Small Dog changed her life.
It was sold in Ikea and it’s popularity enabled the 53-year-old to pursue her love of art full time, open the Little Mustard Shop and Gallery in Brighton and have her own dog!
I’ve had the print on my wall for years and asked Sam when we started chatting on Instagram if she would give an interview on how her love of dogs inspired her art. I was so chuffed when she said yes!
Sam, I love your Small Dog print, where did the idea came from?
I was in St Ann’s Well Park sitting watching the dogs and I saw this little dog and it was just sitting in the middle of the park, like the picture.
Someone was shouting ‘Small Dog’ at him. The dog was sat looking intently at everything and had no intention of going back to their owner and then fixed its look at me.
I thought ‘What a fantastic idea for a painting.’ I didn’t want to do the dog in the park, but rather a small dog with a lot of space around him so that’s what I did.
It changed my life and I was able to get my own dog, so I owe a lot to that little dog.
I was having modest success at the time, doing waitressing and all kinds of other things to make a living but when Small Dog went into Ikea it meant that I could become a full time artist.
It’s now on the B&Q advert and is still hugely popular and something I’m very proud of.
Can you tell us about your dogs?
When my art career took off I felt I could afford the time and expense to have a dog and my first was Moses, a Labrador and Newfoundland cross who I had from being ten weeks old.
He was as good as gold. He was 16 and died seven months ago.
Then we took in little Stan, who is a Poodle Shih-Zhu cross and is now 11. He’s very mischievous and intelligent, cuddling and loving.
Moses and Stan loved each other and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have lost Moses and not had a dog in my life, it would have been terrible.
After losing Moses, Betty, now two, came to us. She’s a German Shepherd and is beautiful and reminds me of the dogs we used to have when we were younger.
Betty and Stan get on well. He’s bossy and Betty is very playful.
So you had dogs growing up?
Yes, I was born in Staffordshire and when I was a little girl my mum used to live on an Alsation breeding kennels and my sister Louise and I used to play with the dogs.
They had a fierce reputation in the 1970s and 80s and us girls playing with them was a selling point and we adored being around them.
What would you say is the best thing about being a dog owner?
Dogs encourage a lifestyle which is very good for me, they make you go out and talk to people, they make you get up in the morning, and when you have a dog people talk to you as well.
I have to get out and walk a few miles every day, rain or shine and I spend half my day walking the dogs and that’s where I get my best ideas.
There’s one path I walk on and that’s where all my ideas come from. I like the routine, it’s meditative, and without the walk I don’t feel right.
Your work features Mr Mustard, his wife Violet and terrier Doris, where did the inspiration for them come from?
Mr Mustard is a self portrait. He wears the same striped socks as me and the hat, jacket and scarf are all things I’ve had.
He’s a bit of a loner but not lonely, he feels good in himself when he’s on his own and he doesn’t really fit in.
He’s a little bit eccentric and I thought I’d give him a little dog, Doris, as a friend.
In Doris I created a dog who is devoted to him but also quite grumpy, a little bit like Lou and Andy in Little Britain.
They have a similar relationship where Mr Mustard gives so much love and is doting and adoring and the dog is indifferent.
Mr Mustard’s wife Violet is based on an old lady I used to go and see in Brighton when I first moved here 20 years ago.
She lived in the flat below me and she was really lovely but very gruff with a twinkle in her eye. She was no-nonsense and used to tell me off all the time!
What do you feel is the message behind your paintings?
I see them as wistful and thoughtful and funny sometimes.
It’s that you can be alone but not be lonely and I try to show the importance of being individual, doing what you want and not caring too much what people think.
It’s also about love, and that you should give love without expecting it to be given back.
The dog is the vehicle for the channelling of the love with Mr Mustard.
He gives a lot of love and she doesn’t give much back other than her presence.
And you have the Little Mustard Shop and Gallery and the Dog and Bone Gallery in Brighton where people can meet you and see your work?
Yes, as a girl I’d always wanted a shop and when it became available I was thrilled as it was so small it made it affordable and some friends who offered to help out in the shop too.
There’s lots of little shelves in there and plenty to see with all kinds of gifts ranging from lucky bags for a couple of pounds to paintings for £1,000 so something for everyone.
I’ve worked with artists and makers I’ve met through Instagram and they have their work in there too, and I try to choose people whose work complements my work.
The shop is my luxury. You meet so many fascinating people. I also have the Dog and Bone Gallery is two renovated phone boxes in Powis Square near the shop.
I have everything I need in my life so having the shop is something for me, it’s a beautiful place and fun too.
I work there one day a week and we’re doing well with other people’s work which is lovely. Being an artist is a lovely thing to be.
People attribute a lot of their happiness and luck to my work and I hear all sorts of beautiful stories of it lifting people’s spirits, making them feel happy and hopeful and making their lives better and the shop is part of that.
That’s really lovely to hear. How does bringing happiness to people make you feel?
It’s nice, and never something I really expected. People will come and give you a hug and they feel like they really know you, which is lovely.
It’s a good thing but I’m quite insular so sometimes it is a little overwhelming.
We love following you on social media – has it helped you in your work?
Yes, it has helped me get my message across and people can see the work and the person behind the work through my channels.
People appreciate the family element and the story behind it and the community element and I love engaging with the Mustardistas too.
I do a grand day out if I’m visiting a gallery with cakes and bunting and signings and a giveaway and try to show my appreciation.
People talk to each other and it’s become a little community, not just at events but on Facebook and Instagram as well, and it’s great.
And finally, what do you think you would do if you weren’t an artist?
I think I would have been a performer or dancer in a circus, or I love the outdoors, so a landscape gardener, or work in a post office and have a good gossip all day.
You can see Sam’s work at her gorgeous shop at 33 Clifton Hill, Brighton, BN1 3HQ from Wednesday – Sunday, 10.30am to 5pm.
Sam is taking part in Brighton Festival in May and free colouring postcards can be collected from the shop in April in May and will be displayed in the Dog and Bone Gallery.
If you’re in Brighton for the Royal Wedding, Sam is giving away free, exclusive button holes and there will be a street party.
Also in May is a Secret Postcard auction where people can buy postcard sized artworks by Sam and Grayson Perry, Gilbert and George.
They’re signed on the back and the starting price is £5. All funds retained by Royal Academy Charitable Organisation
Sam has a range of her paintings on posters, canvas, calendars, mugs, cards, framed prints and bags at her online shop too at www.samtoft.co.uk
And you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where she shares her work and news about gallery and studio events and tours and see The Little Mustard shop on Instagram and The Dog and Bone Gallery Instagram
If you like reading about people being inspired by their pets, you might enjoy How Beagle Cooper inspired The Barklife Way and How Labrador Bertie helped Katie find her dream job.