Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Brighter Later

It was a brighter morning than the last two, less wintry as well. The mud underfoot was soft and the puddles not iced over. An ice blue sky stretched over London, the backdrop to an insipid sunrise and dappled grey clouds. Still winter then. Breath clouded in front of me and everything seemed pale and calm. The cold keeps the dog walkers away, but makes the morning struggle with the dead weight of the duvet one I more often lose than win.

Walking out across the pitches I notice the gulls that roost here are already mostly gone. Only a few remain to be mobbed by the restless crows for any worms their pattering feet bring to the surface. I track one idly in flight. A first winter, it is already agile enough to keep the crows at bay, but maybe they’re not seriously pursuing it. Dull brown feathers are scattered across the wings and body like little autumn leaves. I continue to follow it as it comes back across and morphs from the expected Black-headed Gull into a Common Gull. I’d misjudged the size; and the everyday turns into something different. Not exciting – by coincidence the common in the name also suggests something of its regularity – and not something unexpected either, but something new. I’d never seen one here before. I look around and find an adult perched on the grass too. Crisp white and grey, as if it had been made of snow and shadows.

Maybe transformation was the theme of the walk.

Halfway across the park and looking back over my shoulder. A crow sailed across the sky. As crows have done and will do, it looked dark and angular and uncannily like a bird of prey. It came in across the park, holding my attention when it banked, revealing a pale barred underbody. In an instant I correct myself. Not crow but Peregrine Falcon. It flies into the sunrise but the light is weak and I can still make out the plumage; the black hood and white cheeks and the sheer muscular bulk of its body. It circles around and heads off towards the tall towers of the city.

Transformations. Formerly one of Britain’s rarest birds and inhabitant of the tallest cliffs in the remotest parts; a recently resurgent population has taken them into our cities. The towers make perfect cliffs, with a seemingly endless supply of pigeons. It could be one of London’s, or one from further afield. Peregrine, from peregrinate, was first defined to me as ‘winter wandering’: my dictionary only states ‘wandering’, but the winter part stuck. The idea of winter’s nomadic Peregrine Falcons can’t be moved from my mind.

As it flies off into the sunrise I involuntarily dredge up all the extraordinary facts about this species. But nothing quite compares to the experience of actually seeing it. It transforms the morning from pleasant to something electric. Not so much the spring, but the spark in my step.

A mixed flock of roughly forty Redwings and Fieldfares flew over the tall trees to the north. I wonder what awaits them in Willesden, maybe Wembley or perhaps even Watford? I wonder where they go, and where they roost. I figure I’ll never know and not everything needs extraordinary facts. I stamp off down the pavement to bring life to my numb cold toes. I walk past the tube station against the tide of suits. Nobody makes eye contact with the man with the binoculars, muddy-green coat and cheap wellies.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Natural Eye

There is an owl glaring down at me as I have a cake with my coffee. Its ear tufts are held in against its head, two bumps deviating from the v-shaped brow that makes up the owl-frown and culminates in the hooked beak, with piercing pale yellow eyes either side. The dull brown plumage is delicately notched light and dark and fades out in drips of paint down to the edge of the paper. It’s the most arresting image in the exhibition. And then you realise it was painted by a teenager*.
The Natural Eye is the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition in the Mall Galleries, London. It is the one week in the year when a scrap steel Giraffe towers over a limestone Ptarmigan within sight of Buckingham Palace. It’s an unusual location. Wildlife art exists in an unhappy hinterland between commercial twee and acceptance by mainstream contemporary art galleries, particularly when compared to landscapes or portraiture. It strikes me that nature writers such as Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey et al, never have this problem as being accepted as a valid voice in contemporary literature. Ted Hughes, poet of crows, foxes and hawks (amongst other things) became poet laureate, for example. But with a mayfly-like lifespan, this gallery in the heart of London throngs with the life and the rowdy, colourful chaos of nature.

After fifty years of the SWLA how is wildlife art looking? And what is the purpose of wildlife art?

Colourful. That, at least, is the impression on first glance of walls stuffed with paintings, woodcuts, linoprints and plinths of sculptures. And birdy: if it was renamed the Society for Bird Art it seems that not many of its members would complain. In Nick Derry’s art the two come together joyously. His paintings are riots of colour: Red Kites on purple paper; a Red-backed Shrike with a well-butchered hawker; Blue-headed Wagtails feeding amongst flowers, Swallows and a Greenshank. There is a vernal joy here that the artist sees and communicates in loose brushstrokes with all the life and energy of the birds themselves. That for me is the purpose of wildlife art: communicating the essence, the nature of nature.

The very best art here does that, and the best thing about the exhibition is its presentation of so many different ways of seeing animals. Darren Woodhead finds that nature through minimalism. Watercolours, painted in the field on a white background and mostly consisting of just a tree and a bird; they tell of windblown stories of migration, fleeting moments and occurrences on the Lothian coast. Harriet Mead performs a kind of alchemy in turning lifeless and rusty scrap steel into sculptures of hares, a heron, a giraffe. I have no idea how its possible to turn callipers into feathers. Like I said, some kind of alchemy. All these works are touched by abstraction. The natural eye at its best sees beyond what is merely present and invests it with something meaningful. The worst works here don’t do this. It feels unfair to criticise any in particular but a reliance on the habitual ways of seeing things, nothing beneath the surface prettiness that shackles a slightly disappointing amount of work on show.

Oddly there is a lack of work with an obvious conservation or cultural element to it. Very little of the art on display places an animal into a human or human altered landscape, which is something I can’t quite explain. Is there a fear of aestheticisng the ‘unnatural’? I found three exceptions. Carry Akroyd’s Big Turns and Little Terns finds an echo in the white angular wings of a foreground flock of terns and the blades of a distant wind farm. It is a scene familiar to any Norfolk birder and I like how it makes the connections in the scene, mercifully without picking a side. Bruce Pearson should need no introduction and his work from time spent on South Atlantic trawlers with the BirdLife albatross protection team is extraordinary: beautiful and timely.  Only one has made it into the exhibition but with fisherman, fish and bird as its subject, he provides more depth and balance than typically found in coverage of conservation issues.

The final exception is the likeliest to be hung as part of a collection of contemporary art. A Blush by Fran Giffard is a series of diary pages with exotic birds drawn in graphite and painted in aquarelle. Exotic birds perch on top of lists and numbers, notes to self and accounts of the day. This is how birds are for me. How they decorate the edges of the daily routine, bring a touch of wonder to the mundane, every day.

For a fiftieth birthday snapshot of the work of its members, The Natural Eye is eclectic, but the hits in this exhibition far outweigh the misses and I left with my head full of ideas and the urge to pick up a pen and draw for the first time in years. I think that counts as a success.

The Natural Eye is on at the Mall Galleries until the 10th of November. Entry is £3.

*Unforgivably I forgot to write down their name. It was the winning image in the 13-19 year old age category.