‘To hell with nature!’: An Exhibition of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints

I am grateful for second chances. Following on from the 2017 Royal Academy exhibition “Second Nature,” which Robert Meyrick and I prepared in conjunction with the publication of our catalogue raisonné of Charles Tunnicliffe’s prints, I created a new show exploring the painter-printmaker’s career. “‘To hell with nature!’: A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints” is on display at the School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University, in Wales, until 12 March 2018.
Poster design by Neil Holland, showing
a detail of Tunnicliffe’s The Stuck Pig (1925)
The new show has been curated to highlight four phases of Tunnicliffe’s printmaking career: his student days, in which work on the family farm became the subject of his autobiographical prints; his success as a maker of fine art prints; his second career as an illustrator and commercial artist after the collapse of the print market in the early 1930s; and his ‘decorative’ works featuring birds to whose study he devoted much time after he moved to Anglesey in North Wales.

Charles Tunnicliffe (1901–1979) grew up and worked on a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after his studies, he gained a reputation and a market in Britain and the United States as an etcher of farming subjects.

In 1929, Tunnicliffe married a fellow art student, Winifred Wonnacott. The couple settled in Macclesfield. Although Tunnicliffe enjoyed the theatre and the movies, as his diaries tell us, London never featured in his fine art prints. In middle age, not long after the end of the Second World War, Charles and Winifred Tunnicliffe relocated to Anglesey, where Tunnicliffe became an avid birdwatcher. Today, Tunnicliffe is closely associated with his study of birds and is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist.

Towards the end of a career spanning six decades, Tunnicliffe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It may seem somewhat incongruous that, in an interview published in the Society’s magazine, Tunnicliffe stated:

‘I have shocked quite a lot of people by saying ‘To hell with nature!’ Nature is made to be used, not to be dictator, as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’

I used this exclamation as the starting point for my exploration of Tunnicliffe’s career. To me, it expresses the frustration of an artist whose pictures are often judged on the strength of their fidelity to nature. Instead, Tunnicliffe’s prints show us nature transformed by culture and outdone by art. They demonstrate their maker’s knowledge of art history, his love of design, and the need to tell his own story.

It was printmaking that earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, however, he rarely produced fine art prints. For decades, Tunnicliffe’s work in various media appeared in magazines, on calendars and biscuit tins.

The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career. Turning from etching to wood engraving, he became a prolific illustrator. His first project was Tarka the Otter.

Anglesey was no retreat for Tunnicliffe. Working on commission, he created colourful paintings he described as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ He also continued to turn out mass-reproduced designs that promoted anything from pesticides to the Midland Bank. The messages these images conveyed were never the artist’s own.

Since the mid-1930s, Tunnicliffe’s work has been appreciated mainly second-hand. Until last year, when Robert Meyrick and I put together a catalogue raisonné of his etchings and wood engravings, Tunnicliffe never had a printmaking exhibition at the Royal Academy.

For some of his early prints, we were unable to trace contemporary impressions. The plates, which Tunnicliffe retained, were proofed by School of Art printmaker Andrew Baldwin.

Exhibitions like ‘To hell with nature!’ remind us what many histories of twentieth-century art omit in order to sustain their focus on the avant-garde. Tunnicliffe’s career does not fit into the narrative of Modernism. It is a product of modernity. In his work, at least, he never said ‘to hell’ with culture. Pragmatic yet passionate, he made images to make a living.

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