“To hell with nature!”: Legacy—Tunnicliffe as ‘Bird Artist’

“To hell with nature!”: Legacy—Tunnicliffe as ‘Bird Artist’

‘To hell with nature!’ gallery view: Tunnicliffe’s birds

Tunnicliffe came to appreciate birds while working on illustrations for Henry Williamson’s nature stories. Williamson was dissatisfied with some of Tunnicliffe’s designs. Being urged to ‘see a barn owl somewhere’ encouraged Tunnicliffe to study birds more closely.

Charles Tunnicliffe, Barn Owl (1937)

Studies of dead specimens were essential to Tunnicliffe’s compositions. Pages from Tunnicliffe’s sketchbooks were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1974.  Initiated by the Welsh artist Kyffin Williams, Bird Drawings was Tunnicliffe’s first and only solo show the Academy staged in his lifetime.  He had been a full member since 1954.

Uncertain about the drawings, the Academy consulted an ornithologist who vouched for their accuracy. The drawings were arranged according to family, genus and species. Tunnicliffe had lent them only reluctantly. They ended up portraying him as an imitator of nature.

‘Nature is a master pattern maker,’ Tunnicliffe wrote in My Country Book, ‘capable of designs far more wonderful than anything that I could have invented.’ Nature was not his only guide, however. For his decorative prints and paintings, Tunnicliffe chose flattened forms over illusionistic techniques. To his readers, he recommended the study of Chinese, Japanese and Persian artists.

A ‘picture is a purely man-made thing,’ Tunnicliffe declared in later life. To ‘let nature dictate is impure.’

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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