Michael McCarthy in his Moth Snowstorm cited Charles Tunnicliffe as being, in his opinion, “the pre-eminent British bird artist of the mid-twentieth century” and his Shorelands Summer Diary as being “one of the loveliest books on the natural world ever produced”. High praise indeed, so I decided to check it out, and found an inexpensive, second-hand copy (not on Amazon). And he may be right: it is certainly lovely.
Shorelands Summer Diary is also absolutely of its time — the early 1950s — and seems to come at us through a misty glass, from the past of that other country that was Britain before the latest population explosion and, more to the point, the Great Thinning of the natural habitat of these islands, when agro-chemicals and habitat destruction started doing their damage. It pre-dates Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring of 1962 and also the IUCN’s Red Data List of endangered species which wasn’t established until 1964. This volume’s naivety exists only through us looking back to it with hindsight. The innocence possessed then was largely intact.
Charles Tunnicliffe was born at the opening of the twentieth century. From humble beginnings, he gained a scholarship to The Royal College of Art and went on to become more or less a household name. His illustrations in Ladybird books, Brooke Bond tea cards and for the covers of the RSPB’s magazine were awaited with great anticipation and often cherished. Much of his detailed observation of birds was gathered from personal experience at his home, Shorelands, in the south-west corner of Anglesey. Indeed, the book starts with his charming description of their removal van manoeuvring through the narrow lane to the house when he and his wife moved to the island in 1947. (Much of Tunnicliffe’s work can today be seen at the nearby Oriel Ynys Môn museum and arts gallery.)
Tunnicliffe’s text is gentle and mildly lyrical. It offers no major flourishes, no literary tricks. It has a simple charm, an innocence — again, through our own over-the-shoulder hindsight. What it is memorable for is the clarity of its colour plates and the style and vivacity of its scraperboard engravings.
A quarto-sized book
The Diary is a quarto-sized book, 24cms x 30.5cms, arranged chronologically, one chapter per month. Tunnicliffe’s summer ran from the end of March to the end of September. As with all good diaries, some days have no entries. (There is a Shorelands Winter Diary, released posthumously in 1992.) Margins are generous in the extreme. The print is small but extends to 45 or so lines per page (if drawings are removed), so there is detail aplenty. Published in 1952 when the rationing that was introduced during the war was still in force, this volume must have seemed luxurious, if not extravagant.
Full-page colour plates
There are 16 full-page, colour plates, closely-detailed paintings of pairs or small groups of birds, mostly waders, but interleaved with 4 of raptors. These were printed on one side of the page with their reverse sides left blank, ensuring that no text was ghosted through behind the colour plates.
These colour plates are not supposed to be photographic. They are not studies in bird groupings. The golden plovers above would not assemble in such groups on the ground. But they are studies in posture, plumage and behaviour, catching the essence of the bird from different angles and in different light conditions. Golden plovers — when you are lucky enough to see them — do indeed have a sheen to their feathers. They seem to capture light and then reflect it back as dazzling colour.
Tunicliffe’s study of bird posture is wonderfully evident in the three redshanks above, captured whilst feeding, probing yet cautious, one reflex away from flight.
Dotted throughout the text are a staggering 180-odd monochrome engravings. Each chapter begins with one. There is hardly a single page without one. Sometimes, a page is lucky to be decorated with two such designs. These range from detailed close-ups of single, paired or grouped birds to scenes dusted with distant clouds of birds. Occasionally, there is an indoor scene — millstones turning, for example — where the absence of birds balances the book’s avian collection, showing an equally capable draughtsmanship. Most are exquisite in their composition and their handling of light and shade.
These smaller pieces capture landscape moods in changing light. The emphasis is less on individual birds and their plumage, more on groups of birds, flight groupings and direction changes. The ringed plovers above are perfectly caught, sheltering, hunkered against the wind. Their normally busy disposition is here stilled by necessity.
It is a rare thing to have an artist of such skill who can write — and has something pertinent and interesting to say. But the dominant medium is the artwork. Tunnicliffe’s knowledge of birds was exceptional, stemming from intense and extended observation. He tramped fields as well as any good bird watcher. He was known for measuring birds to achieve a more detailed understanding of their shape and size. Examples of the resulting studies can be seen on the Charles Tunnicliffe Society website.