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To Hell with Nature!

The Cheshire-born painter-printmaker Charles Tunnicliffe OBE (1901–1979) is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist. Dr Harry Heuser explores his work.

Relocating to Anglesey in 1947, Tunnicliffe concentrated on the study of birds and their behaviour. Tunnicliffe has often been referred to as a ‘bird artist,’ a specialisation to which “Bird Drawings by C. F. Tunnicliffe RA” (1974) attests; it was his only solo exhibition at the Royal Academy in his lifetime. And yet, as is noticeable in the range of representative images in this auction, Tunnicliffe’s practice was rather more diverse. Fine prints, book illustrations as well as watercolour and mixed media paintings demonstrate Tunnicliffe’s ability to respond to market demands by exploring a variety of media.

The Welsh Sale at Gregynog | Lot 35

Blackbird Sunbathing



Key to Tunnicliffe’s practice is a profound knowledge of his subject matter. Tunnicliffe grew up and worked on a farm near Macclesfield. Many of his early works reflect this upbringing and experience, depicting activities such as milking, pig rearing and sheep shearing. A scholarship enabled Tunnicliffe to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

Soon after his studies, Tunnicliffe gained a reputation as an etcher of farming subjects. Recording life on the farm and featuring members of his family, Tunnicliffe’s earliest etchings and drawings provide us with a visual diary based on sketches to which he would refer throughout his career.

The White Horse (1927) represents Tunnicliffe’s work as a printmaker during the final years of the so-called print boom of the 1920s. The etching was reproduced as exemplary in Fine Prints of the Year 1927 and Etchings of Today (1929). In the latter publication, The White Horse was touted as the ‘work of a new man of talent’ whose prints were ‘like so many shares. At first low in price, they are sometimes bought in the expectation that they will increase in value, and quite often they appreciate to an extraordinary extent, though the best advice to give to purchasers is that they should back their own taste and buy something which they really like.’

The Welsh Sale at Gregynog | Lot 53

The White Horse



The low horizon Tunnicliffe adopted for his prints of farm animals reflects his awareness of and admiration for the work of seventeenth-century Dutch painter-printmaker Paulus Potter (1625–1654), whose etchings he studied on visits to the British Museum Print Room during his final year at the Royal College of Art.

Cockatoo (1938) is a prime example of Tunnicliffe’s adeptness at translating nature into art by creating decorative designs rooted in careful observation. The size of the block allowed Tunnicliffe to lavish great attention on the plumage. In his book Bird Portraiture (1945), Tunnicliffe emphasised the need for an artist’s ‘scientific understanding of [such] subjects.’ He advised his reader to observe the ‘various groups of feathers’ and ‘feel the bony construction of wings and legs’ to gain an ‘understanding’ of the ‘anatomy.’

The Welsh Sale at Gregynog | Lot 52




Printmaking earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, however, he rarely produced fine art prints. The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to refocus his career. Gradually turning away from etching to wood engraving and scraperboard, Tunnicliffe became a sought-after illustrator of books, newspapers and magazines. His first project was the novel Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, whose criticism of Tunnicliffe’s illustrations would prove influential: ‘[S]ee a barn owl somewhere Mister Tunnicliffe’, Williamson had scoffed.

The commissions Tunnicliffe undertook as an illustrator ranged from My Friend Flicka to Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea. One of the illustrations in the current auction, Samson and the Lion, provided Tunnicliffe with an opportunity to revisit a theme that had thrilled him in his youth, when he devoured the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Around 1925, as a student at the Royal College of Art, Tunnicliffe had devoted a print to the same subject.

Rather than aiming mainly at fidelity in his animal portraiture – for which he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds toward the end of his career –Tunnicliffe insisted on exerting his creative freedom. ‘I have shocked quite a lot of people,’ Tunnicliffe stated in an interview published in the Society’s magazine, ‘by saying “To hell with nature!”’ Nature, he declared, is not a ‘dictator,’ at least ‘as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’

While distinguishing between the ‘naturalistic’ and the ‘decorative’ in the treatment of subjects drawn from nature, Tunnicliffe also challenged that dichotomy: ‘Whatever your approach,’ he advised, ‘you will find that your naturalistic treatment can have a very decorative quality, and that a decorative treatment can create an illusion of atmosphere though none has been consciously attempted.’

His watercolour paintings, in particular, were intended, in Tunnicliffe’s words, as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ Those are ‘the places they are going into, I am pleased to say. Hardly any go into galleries; they are bought privately.’ Watercolour paintings such as Hunter in the Forest and April Redshanks, many of which were commissioned and created to the buyer’s specifications, were designed to take pride of place in the homes of collectors who, to this day, seek them out.

For decades, Tunnicliffe’s images were widely disseminated second-hand – on calendars and magazine covers, as book illustrations, collectible cards and on biscuit tins. The works in this auction afford a first-hand experience of Tunnicliffe’s remarkable output.

The Welsh Sale at Gregynog | Lot 39

April Redshanks



The Welsh Sale at Gregynog | Lot 38

Hunter in the Forest



by Dr Harry Heuser, co-author of the catalogue raisonné Charles Tunnicliffe: Prints (2017) and curator of ‘To hell with nature!’: A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints (School of Art, Aberystwyth University, 2018).

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