Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Charles Tunnicliffe, high-flying wildlife artist

by Christopher Proudlove©
Charles Tunnicliffe looked for all the world like a farmer ... big and burly, with hands like cornbin lids, more likely to be swinging a pitchfork than holding a paintbrush. In fact, he was a deeply sensitive craftsman of delicate, artistic skill who became arguably Britain's finest wildlife artist of his time.

He drew birds mostly ... with such scientific precision and painstaking care that it cost him his sight. He was born a farmer but died in 1979 a Royal Academician leaving behind him a legacy of wonderful art; only now has his work gained widespread recognition and acclaim.

The first hint of the artist's future importance was in May, 1981, when a
collection of several hundred drawings, sketchbooks and manuscripts that had been found in his studio at Shorelands overlooking the Malltraeth Estuary on Anglesey, North Wales, were sent for sale at Christie's.

The remarkable collection was Tunnicliffe's private reference library: a painted and sketched record of plummage, beaks, feet and eyes of every species of bird imaginable, birds in flight, birds feeding, swimming, perching, all captured in exact, measured detail.

These pictures were the tools of his trade, his catalogue for his commission customers, but apart from a brief exhibition in 1974, the world was unaware of them. However, publicity surrounding the auction dispersal of the collection alerted the authorities.

With three days to spare before the sale, Anglesey Borough Council stepped in with a £400,000 bid and bought the entire collection. It was the culmination of a national appeal, led by Tunnicliffe’s friend, Wales’s greatest 20th century artist the late Sir Kyffin Williams, backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (of which Tunnicliffe had been a vice-president and benefactor) and the National Museum of Wales. The collection can be seen today at Oriel Ynys Môn, near Llangefni, which was built specifically to house it.

Charles Tunnicliffe (1901-1979) was born in 1901 in Langley, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, the son of William Tunnicliffe, and his wife, Margaret. The couple also had two daughters.

In 1903, the family moved to a small farm that took its name from the village of Sutton Lane Ends, again on the outskirts of Macclesfield, and it was there that Tunnicliffe found his first artistic inspiration.

From an early age he had surprised his family and teachers with his ability to draw animals. The boy's schoolmaster realised his talents and arranged a scholarship for him at Macclesfield College of Art, where he fitted his studies around helping his father on the farm.

Under normal circumstances the young boy would have followed his father into farming, but the art bug had bitten deep. Some summer mornings Tunnicliffe would be up at four o'clock and harnessing the horse to cut the hayfield before starting his day's work as a student.

However, an abrupt change of environment came a couple of years after the Armistice. Tunnicliffe's art tutors suggested he try for a scholarship at the Royal College of Art and when he was accepted at the age of 19, he leapt at the chance to broaden his horizons.

There was great excitement on the auction circuit when a cache of drawings by Tunnicliffe, some of which were believed to be previously unseen and unpublished, were uncovered in the home of his late niece.
It appears that in addition to the measured drawings now on exhibition in Anglesey, Tunnicliffe made a number of bequests to family members, one of which was a group of about 18 works discovered in her home following his niece’s recent death. They were sold at Cheshire auctioneers Peter Wilson in July for a total of £14,382. They had been expected to fetch £10,000. Click here to see some of the works sold.

Again the young student impressed and he readily agreed when it was suggested he stay on for an extra year to study etching. It was during this time that he produced a now prized series of etchings showing mainly farming and rural scenes. He also met Winifred Wonnacott who later became his wife.

After living for seven years in London, latterly earning a living as a printmaker, he returned to Macclesfield, married Winifred and set about making a career for himself as a book illustrator and commercial artist.

His first commission was for wood engravings for Henry Williamson's “Tarka the Otter”, followed by “The Lone Swallows”, “The Old Stag” and “A Peregrine's Saga”, Tunnicliffe illustrated more than 80 books including ones by H.E. Bates and Ernest Hemingway.

Tunnicliffe was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1945, more than anything for the high standard of his engraving. He was elected a full Academician 10 years later.

His ties with the Cheshire countryside were finally broken in 1947 when he and his wife found a house on Anglesey suitable for their studio. They had been regular visitors to the island on birdwatching trips and the house, Shorelands, at Malltraeth, with magnificent views to Snowdon and at the Water's edge of the Cefni estuary, he described as his “escape”.

It was there that he produced his best work. Commissions flooded in and at the same time he toiled unremittingly on the measured drawings of wildlife. Word spread that Tunnicliffe wanted dead birds to measure and draw and friends would watch for fatalities at the roadside and bring them to his house. Rarer finds sometimes arrived by post but all had died by accident - Tunnicliffe refused to kill a bird in order to draw it.

This exact recording of wildlife was a gruelling task, drawing of a creature often taking up to four days to complete, and Tunnicliffe's health began to suffer. The death of his wife in 1969 affected him badly and his eyesight began to fail. He died in 1979, in his chair by the fireside from a heart attack, a year after being awarded the OBE.

Picture shows a gouache study of Waxwings, sold for £200. Click here to see a slideshow of other works by Charles Tunnicliffe

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