How a Worthing dad became a global sensation as Hercule Van Wolfwinkle

These are pretty surreal times for Worthing’s Phil Heckels, better known as pet portrait artist Hercule Van Wolfwinkle.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 6:05 am
Phil Heckels - son Sam and wife Ashley
Phil Heckels - son Sam and wife Ashley

His book has become a Sunday Times best-seller; his exhibition is up at running at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery; and his fundraising for Worthing homelessness charity Turning Tides has hit a remarkable £85,000 – and is still rising fast.

Phil admits that perhaps it is all starting to seem just a little more real: “Sunday Times best-selling author. That is going on my CV and no one will be able to take that away from me!

“But am I an artist? That’s a subjective issue, isn’t it. I have this huge imposter syndrome feeling about the whole thing, and I am very very mindful of the fact that there are a lot of artists that have plied their tried for years and haven’t got any of the breaks that this doofus has, but for whatever reason people seem to like what I do!”

Pet Portraits by Hercule Van Wolfwinkle is at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery until Saturday, August 7 – the latest chapter in a tale which began one late summer afternoon in 2020 when, whilst trying to coerce his young son into making some thank-you cards, Phil doodled a picture of their family dog.

Little did he know that that picture would go viral and his work would soon be in high demand with requests for portraits flooding into his inbox in their tens of thousands – requests from all over the globe.

His artistic style has been described as akin to that of a small child who has never seen an animal before. People are loving it: “It has been the perfect storm in some ways, the pictures and the accompanying text. 50 per cent of the success is the pictures; the other 50 per cent is the little pet biogs that I make up. There is that humour element that is important especially as there has not been a lot to smile about just recently. But also the success is that everybody loves their pets. People have got behind the fact that it is drawing pets. But it is also the fundraising for the homeless charity, and with the gift aid, I should think that it is more than £100,000 by now.

“Those numbers are now just beyond comprehension. They have got to the level where you can’t really imagine it. But still the most joyous part was hitting our original £299 target. When we started, the spoof price of the portraits was £299 and so that became the fundraising target. But the whole thing was not a fundraising project to start with. I had been doing the portraits for about three weeks by then. It was just a bit of silly fun and it just blew up from there and I started to think about the fundraising.

Work by Phil Heckels

“Turning Tides is a charity that we had supported as a family for a long time. They have been our go-to Christmas charity.”

As Phil says, there is no great romantic story behind it all; as he says, the charity didn’t pull him off the streets and give him a home. More it was simply that he was thinking of the way some people say “You wouldn’t believe how many homeless people I saw” – sadly more in the sense “and it ruined my trip to Primark” than the sense that “This is terrible!”

“Homelessness is something that can get a bit skewed in people’s minds. But for us it is that old thing about charity beginning at home. Homelessness is right here on our doorsteps in our communities and if we can’t help the people that are literally on our doorsteps, then where on earth do we go from here?”

As for where Phil goes, it is a case of enjoying the moment, the book, the exhibition. But as he says, he is currently at a bit of a cross-roads. There are more than 10,000 people on his Facebook waiting list waiting for portraits. He knows he won’t be able to do them all. He makes the point that people need to understand it is a lottery whether they get the portrait they ask for or not.

By day Phil is a commercial estate agent: “And this is a bit of a cross-roads. I have created a second full-time job for myself with this.”

And obviously, he needs to make a living – though he is determined that the whole thing will remain first and foremost a charity fund-raising endeavour: “For me, the saddest thing would be if I had to give up the fundraising. With my other half (Ashley), I have now set up an online merchandising store. We are doing things like T-shirts. We are looking at doing prints. We are just exploring to see what the legs are.” But always, the next fundraising target for the homeless charity will be paramount: “We are aiming for £100,000 and then when we reach £100,000, we will think about the next target.”