“To hell with nature!”: Survival—Tunnicliffe as Illustrator

“To hell with nature!”: Survival—Tunnicliffe as Illustrator

The prints displayed on this wall are Tunnicliffe’s response to the collapse of the fine prints market. Etchings ‘ceased to sell’ after the crash of 1929, Tunnicliffe recalled. He ‘had to cast about for other means of making a living.’  The ‘slump’ proved a boon for Tunnicliffe. It led to the success he enjoyed as an illustrator.

Book Illustrations

The career change was encouraged by Tunnicliffe’s artist wife, Winifred (whose portrait is shown on the wall opposite). She had read Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and thought it would be a ‘marvellous book for illustration.’

Tunnicliffe submitted four aquatints to Williamson’s publisher. He did not realise that they were too costly to reproduce. Tunnicliffe was asked to work in wood engraving instead. It was a medium in which he had ‘only dabbled’ before. 

Tunnicliffe illustrated over one hundred books, including his own published journals and his guide How to Draw Farm Animals. Commissions included Under the Sea Wind by marine biologist Rachel Carson, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. However, none of those books were illustrated with wood engravings, which Tunnicliffe gave up altogether in the mid-1950s.

Displayed in the case shown above are books for which Tunnicliffe produced wood engravings. For six books by Henry Williamson alone, Tunnicliffe produced more than 140 wood engravings over a period of just two years.

Tunnicliffe’s output was vast, but his range of subjects was limited. ‘I don’t illustrate a book if I do not know the material,’ he reasoned. This made work on Williamson’s The Star-born a challenge. The book was a ‘celestial fantasy,’ and the author’s instructions left Tunnicliffe ‘completely baffled.’

Tunnicliffe received £50 for providing sixteen full-page illustrations and numerous small decorations for tail pieces of chapters. He insisted on retaining ownership of the blocks. This enabled him to sell his prints separately.

The last book to feature Tunnicliffe’s wood engravings was a 1949 edition of Wild Life in a Southern County by Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. Afterwards, Tunnicliffe used scraperboard and line drawing for monochrome illustrations. Working with a small graver had become a strain on his eyes.


Most of Tunnicliffe’s pictures were only ever appreciated as reproductions. Book illustrations aside, they served as advertisements in newspapers and magazines, as premiums such as Brooke Bond tea cards and as decorations for calendars and biscuit tins.

The absence of any message or agenda opened Tunnicliffe’s images to a market beyond the art scene. In advertising, the messages were supplied by the companies that sought Tunnicliffe’s work, be it to promote Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) or the manufacturers of Dairy Flyspray containing DDT. 

For over four decades, Tunnicliffe’s pictures advertised soap, cruise lines, dog food, stout, fertiliser and the Midland Bank.

After the collapse of the market for fine prints during the Depression, Tunnicliffe survived as an artist by working on demand and appealing to a broad audience. Printmaking played a key role in this. It had brought Tunnicliffe critical acclaim initially, but it also enabled this shift from academic to commercial work.

A fully illustrated print catalogue raisonné by Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser, with an essay on Tunnicliffe’s career by Heuser, was published by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2017.

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