Second Nature: The Art of Charles F. Tunnicliffe

The display of “Second Nature” at the Royal Academy.

The following is a speech I gave on 10 July 2017 at the private view of Second Nature, an exhibition of Charles F. Tunnicliffe’s prints at the Royal Academy of Art in London.  The exhibition was on show until 8 October 2017.  The catalogue, which I co-authored with Robert Meyrick, is in print now:

I thought that I’d say a few words about the work of the man that brings us together here today – and perhaps about this place in relation to that man.

If Tunnicliffe could be with us today, chances are he wouldn’t be with us.  London.  The Academy.  The artworld.  That, he felt, was not his habitat. And yet, we wouldn’t be here if Tunnicliffe had not been elected a member of the Academy – as a printmaker, no less.

Tunnicliffe’s own accounts of his life emphasise his youth growing up and working on a farm.  And much of that is reflected in his subject matter.

Tunnicliffe certainly preferred the outdoors to the inside of institutions.  He would rather study bulls than listen to what he would have considered to be so much academic BS.  And even though he taught art, Tunnicliffe also said he much preferred birds to boys.

All of this fits the romantic view many of us have of the artist as an outsider.  Perhaps, it fits rather too neatly. After all, the farm where Tunnicliffe grew up was near Macclesfield – and the signs of the Industrial Revolution were written in the wind.

The Lederhosen were a bit of a gimmick, or a ruse.

Tunnicliffe was not removed from the world of industry or commerce.  Nor was he resistant to change.  Tunnicliffe, who studied at the Royal College of Art in London, owes his career not to any one institution but to his willingness to adapt.

For decades, far from the madmen crowd, Tunnicliffe produced images that served the advertising racket.


His pictures promoted farming products (some toxic), spurious wonder drugs (for dogs) and the Midland Bank.  Not exactly the messages of a lover of nature.

The thing is, Tunnicliffe’s pictures were not designed as vehicles for his own thoughts.  He made products of visual culture to which messages could be attached by others, at a price, to suit their purposes.

Tunnicliffe also produced book illustrations.  Many of his wood engravings – and the many more scraperboard images we are not even showing here – were secondary to a given text, enhancing or supporting it.

By the time he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1944 (and a full member ten years later), Tunnicliffe had ceased to produce so-called ‘fine’ prints.  The stock market crash had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career and to find his niche in order to make a living as a maker of images.

Partly as a result of this commodification, Tunnicliffe’s prints were never exhibited in a solo show here at the Royal Academy – until now.

You might well protest that what you see on display here today is not much of a print exhibition, either, given that his wood engravings are displayed alongside cheap reproductions and colourful paintings that might overpower them.

Print curator James Laver said nearly seventy years ago that it was ‘a pity’ that so few visitors to the Royal Academy come to ‘the little room in which the etchings and engravings are exhibited.’  Even those who did come visit had ‘neither the patience nor the strength to appreciate what is on the walls.  For prints are intimate things. [They] need individual attention, like shy, sensitive children.’

I hardly think that individual attention span has increased over the last seventy years.  And the Royal Academy seems to reflect that, or perhaps give in to it.

What Second Nature does bring across is the compromise that is Tunnicliffe’s work, and the way in which editioned prints and one-of-a-kind paintings compete with multiple copies: images of visual culture in the service of commerce, of advertising and the printed word.  The purity or sanctity of art is, after all, little more than the modernist rubbishing of modernity.

As I said, this is Tunnicliffe’s first show here as a printmaker.  Tunnicliffe regularly exhibited his watercolour paintings here at the Academy’s Summer Exhibitions, and they always sold. The one solo show he had here was an exhibition of post mortem studies of birds from his personal sketchbook back in the early 1970s.

That show was initiated by the Welsh painter Kyffin Williams, who, like Tunnicliffe and his wife, lived on Anglesey.

Well, the Royal Academy did not know quite what to do with those sketches.  It consulted an ornithologist who vouched for their accuracy but also said that he had seen many like them just as accomplished.

The works were arranged according to family, genus and species. In other words, those private studies, which Tunnicliffe lent only reluctantly, ended up portraying him as an imitator of nature.

Choosing a composition, combining pictorial elements and omitting detail – all that was important to Tunnicliffe.  His pictures were designed to be decorative, as he called it.

Faithful, decorative, or both at once, Tunnicliffe’s work can easily be coopted by those who say ‘now that is real art.’  Or, ‘when a farmer’s boy can become a Royal Academician, surely there cannot be any talk of inequality.’

Tunnicliffe was pragmatic rather than programmatic.  He made images to make a living.  But he did not promote a conservative agenda.

Whether you find such a career uplifting or frustrating is a matter of politics.  For me, it is intriguing because it confronts me with my own biases.  A career like Tunnicliffe’s does not fit into the avant-garde narratives we resort to when we tell or teach the histories of twentieth-century art from modernism to postmodernism, or roughly the six decades during which Tunnicliffe worked professionally.

When I thought about a suitable title for our essay and the exhibition on display here, I set out by looking at what Tunnicliffe said about his work.  I somehow wanted him – and his works – to stand on their own and let them do what most of them were not even intended to do – to speak for themselves or, if that is an impossibility, for Tunnicliffe.

I came across a dramatic exclamation.  ‘To hell with nature.’  He said that in a nature lover’s magazine devoted to British birds.  He said it toward the end of his career.  To me, it expresses the frustration of a man whose work is generally judged on the strength of its resemblance to nature.  As a kind of second-hand nature.

It would have made for a provocative title, don’t you think? But, even though I would have been quoting him, I would also have taking such a rare public outburst out of the context of a career predicated on compromise.

I wonder what would have happened if Tunnicliffe had dared to say ‘To hell with culture.’  He didn’t.   In his work, at least, he did not question the socio-economics that restricted him to serve the market. His earlier work is autobiographical.  His family members are worked into his subjects.  After the stock market crash, commercial work kept him so busy, there was hardly time for the luxury of self-expression that we perhaps tend to overvalue today.

Tunnicliffe did not make environmental statements.  He did not push any agenda.  I wish he had. When we look at his work, we should perhaps acknowledge that, whether we perceive this as a lack or not, an apparent neutrality lends itself to being naturalized.  A second nature is, after all, culture.

So, is it possible meaningfully to discuss the achievements of printmakers like Tunnicliffe without the politics? I am not sure.  But I hope our book – and this exhibition here at the Academy – raises awareness of a printmaker whose work never quite made it into our art histories because it does not fit into the history of twentieth century art, a history that, to suit a grand narrative of progress, we have turned into the history of cultural products that we can lift up or push away as we deem fit.

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