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