Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe was one of those artists whose work is probably far better known than the name attributed to it – a name which, even in the early years of limited sales and gallery neglect, he promoted only reluctantly. Yet over a 50-year career, his work became the defining face of British pastorale. From summer-show paintings of flying ducks, trooping Chinese geese, or shire horses bent to the plough, to the Ladybird nature book covers of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the ubiquity today of cutesy black-and-white illustrators exhibiting in country town gift shops that bear his touch – some of them a surprise; most endlessly disappointing – the influence of Tunnicliffe has changed how we imagine and portray our native wildlife.
A Cheshire lad who, by grace of a scholarship extended to him by the Royal College of Art, ended up a fully-fledged Academician in 1954, Tunnicliffe pretended to a kind of clodhopper straightforwardness that his biography quietly betrays. Though never outwardly academic, his versing in the two subjects to which he devoted his life – art and animals – was deep, reflective, and grounded in empirical observation. Like the work he shared as a young man on the family farm (from milking to pig-killing), he learnt more in the doing than by abstract theory. In conversation and in published instruction he remained ambiguous and pragmatic: here there is little of the academy painter, concerned with narrative, symbol, or ‘the canon’, but whether it is Bruegel or Blake, in the work – and in illustration especially – his visual command and literacy is there to see.
Animalist or artist; this was the anxiety at the heart of his self-identity, and while the two seem happily reconciled in the paintings and prints, they appeared irresolvable to many critics during his lifetime. The portrait of Tunnicliffe painted in Robert Meyrick’s 2017 catalogue raisonné of the prints is of a highly talented and misunderstood artist, who, though latterly popular and critically and commercially successful, derived little satisfaction from the lukewarm acceptance he received from either of the two worlds he straddled, those of ‘Fine Art’ and ornithology.
He often described his work as a kind of blue collar labour, like that of a farmer or wheelwright, and drew invariably when questioned about his childhood on an ancestral legacy apparently steeped in the seasonal rituals of the land. Meyrick reveals that in fact his father’s family had been cobblers; and that it was only on a doctor’s advice that Tunnicliffe Senior moved with his wife, the daughter of a farmer, to a homestead near Macclesfield where the young artist-to-be was raised. When pressed in later interviews on process or philosophy, the implication was always that he could as well have become a farmhand as a painter; and that he wasn’t going to let the mystique of his profession (which he described, rather pointedly, as ‘doing some painting’) get in the way of the subject matter.
That stubbornness, and refusal to be pigeonholed, was famously summed up by Tunnicliffe’s friend, the painter Sir Kyffin Williams: ‘When the world of art was arguing to decide what was art and what was not, Charles Tunnicliffe just lived and worked.’ Turning his back to critics both side of the aisle – fine art purists on the one hand, and bird-watcher pedants on the other – Tunnicliffe did just that, retiring in 1947 to the seclusion of Shorelands, a bungalow on the Malltraeth marshes of Anglesey, where he lived with his wife and fellow artist Winifred until his death in 1979. Here the local marshland is fed by the river Afon Cefni, and hosts birdlife sanctuaries which provided no end of inspiration for their latest resident.
Hawks and Falcons – on the face of it, a thoroughly prosaic set of prints – came at the very end of that long period of self-isolation; a suite of ten images, two larger and eight smaller, of a range of sporting falcons in varied poses. Remarkably, this was Tunnicliffe’s first attempt at lithography, commissioned for a proposed book on falconry to be published by Ron King’s Circle Press, and commercial illustration aside, the first real prints he had produced in over 15 years. In the past, he had found illustrative projects often made demands of compromise. Early book commissions had rejected etchings in favour of line drawings and engravings; the half-tone process required to replicate the depth and breadth of blacks in etching and aquatint was too expensive. Likewise, paintings for books were often made unnaturally brighter, in the knowledge that four-colour printing would dull them in translation. So it seems strange – perhaps a reflection of his remoteness on Anglesey – that it should have taken him so long to turn to lithography, in many ways the most direct of all printing methods, and certainly the closest in touch and design to actual drawing.
In Malltraeth, Tunnicliffe had made a habit of sketching directly from dead birds, holding their wings out full span while noting and painting the arrangement of feathers, much like a quattrocento anatomist. These studies soon built into a vast personal reference library, invaluable both in honing a muscle-memory repertoire of forms and for consulting when unable to meet a subject in the flesh. Undoubtedly they had proved useful in this late project, when ill health likely prevented his accompanying a live hawking. In October 1972 King received two zinc plates in the post with the eight smaller falcons, the images drafted with wax crayon and sharpened in detail with a fine brush and lithographic ink: ‘To tell you the truth,’ read Tunnicliffe’s attending note, ‘I had to swot up my falconry knowledge again. Amazing how much one forgets when one had not been directly in touch with it for some time.’
He had last been involved with the subject in Henry Williamson’s The Peregrine’s Saga and Other Wild Tales, the fourth book by Williamson that Tunnicliffe illustrated (including, most famously, Tarka the Otter). Like Williamson’s text, he refrained from anthropomorphising his subjects. There is no overt human pathos in his animal scenes, no symbolism, no Christian readings of divinity, salvation, and self-sacrifice; just the violent opera of life.
The chivalric falcon, Ronald Stevens tells us, was ‘a symbol, the burnished, steely hard bird of the nobility’, processed through baronial halls and exercised in the demesnes of courtly estates: ‘In the minds of men it took its stand on the summit of the ivory tower of aspiration. It lured the imagination into the realms of fantasy where young manhood put on the armour of virtue to venture through deserts of self-discipline in quest of a fabulous blue falcon or a white falcon of surpassing excellence, symbols of the unattainable that haunt the dreams of men.’ Author of four volumes on the subject, Stevens was a lifelong falconer, renowned not only for his expertise but for conveying the adrenaline joy of the pastime to the public through his writing. To the uninitiated, as most of us are, it is precisely the arcane particularity of the subject that he describes that at once entices and confuses: its strange, age-old language of ‘tiercels’ stooping, eyesses in the eyrie, laggars, lanners, sakers and gyrs, ramage falcons and the rousing of feathers.
Among the birds depicted in Tunnicliffe’s suite is Stevens’ very own ‘Gyr Falcon’, one of the two larger images in the series, its berry-black, beaded eyes staring right out from the page at us. In The Taming of Genghis, Stevens had related the profoundly moving personal tale of his relationship with one trainee falcon, seized in its infancy from the mountains of Iceland and brought back to be trained from the author’s solitary home on the Welsh marshes (the poetic symmetry was likely not lost on Tunnicliffe). First published in 1956, I like to think the artist had a copy beside him when he drew this plate, open perhaps at this passage when Genghis is first liberated from the blackness of his training hood:
‘The hood that Genghis was still wearing was about to be removed. From the time of his capture it had covered his mind with darkness, the darkness of the tunnel through which he is travelling from one life to another. Only for a little time will he glimpse surroundings that will be so weirdly strange to him that he will be relieved to find himself back in the former darkness of the hood…’
‘…This mews, this ill-lit cave that we are in – is it a tomb, the final abyss that I have dragged him down into? Its chill and silence say it is, and we ourselves are as rigid as a couple of corpses. But the candle’s flame continues to burn no less steadily than it did before, and its light falls upon him and me. For the first time in his new life he sees that we are together. In the teeming sensations of his mind, through the density of amazement and awe, he is trying to grasp the meaning of me, for I have gone far beyond being his captor.’
‘He is staring at me with an intensity that I can feel but not see. I cannot get my eyes up to his for he would see in mine more than he could bear. Falconers do not look their ramage hawks in the eye. But I can see his powerful feet with their spreading toes, their petty singles armed with eight black, needle-sharp claws curved like scimitars, and above them his mail, his breast feathers drawn tight by fearful anticipation. Above that I dare not look. As I am now, so, with downcast eyes, a heathen would contemplate his idol.’
In the end, the costs of the project proved too great to proceed. Tunnicliffe’s plates were shelved until their rediscovery in 1975, when they were printed in sepia and limited to an edition of 90 copies to be issued individually and in collected folios. In the three years since their drafting, the zinc plates had oxidised, making it difficult to print from them. Then a flood at Circle Press premises in the early 1980s irreparably damaged a large number of the prints. Complete portfolios outside private hands, like that offered here, are an increasing rarity.
Like the man himself, the birds of Hawks and Falcons give the appearance of absolute, dead-eye straightness. As with all his work, they are not difficult to read, though invariably they surrender more to enjoy the longer you spend in their company. A falcon’s unwavering directness, often lauded by keepers of birds, is that same which saw Tunnicliffe’s popularity among ‘layman’ appreciators of art. There is no sense of being deliberately deceived, confused, or distanced from some secret, unspoken meaning in his art; the kind of knowing, and more often than not totally vacuous mystification which has seen so many ‘non-art’ people turn against contemporary art and artspeak.
Put simply, Tunnicliffe spent a life recording a world which few of us have the time, skill or patience to witness and explore ourselves. That in itself was as powerful a statement as one could make: to hold back from hysterifying the everyday violence of the natural world; from beautifying its uglier, muddier reaches; from indulging sentimental and saccharine comparison, in favour of a sometimes fiercer, brighter, stronger truth.