[I recently found this introduction to the artist C F Tunnicliffe written by Kyffin Williams in a booklet supporting an exhibition. This exhibition, which was on Tunnicliffe’s working methods, was held in Anglesey in the early 1980s – a few years after Tunnicliffe’s death in 1979. I can’t find this introduction anywhere else online so I thought I would share it here (lightly abridged) because it offers a beautiful and personal insight into the man and his work.]
“In an age when artistic movements have followed each other with bewildering speed; when skill has often been of less importance than the idea, and sensation has dimmed perception, the world of art has tended to underestimate the work of Charles Tunnicliffe. As Stubbs has been dismissed in the past as a mere horse painter, so Tunnicliffe was considered to be a bird artist and as such to be of less merit than most of the fashionable artists of today.
If this was so it didn’t worry the countryman from Cheshire for his work was done for love, love of birds and of animals, of the wildflowers on the rocks above the sea, of the wind, of the sun and of the changing seasons. The whole of nature absorbed him and he was more sensitive to it than any man I have ever met; but it was nature in the particular that motivated his probing eye and forced him to live a life of obsession that produced a body of work that has hardly been equalled by any British artist.
Every day he worked; in the fields, on the shore, in the Anglesey marshes and in his studio overlooking the sea. When the world of art was arguing to decide what was art and what was not, Charles Tunnicliffe just lived and worked. Pleasure to him did not lie in recognition but in something as simple as a woodcock’s feather or the sight of a heron from his studio window, for he was a simple and sensible man, a shy man and a sensitive one, a man who knew the importance of the little things in life, a skilful man and a knowledgeable one. Charles Tunnicliffe was no sentimentalist for he was a true countryman, a balanced man who knew that the age-old pattern of the land was breeding, feeding and then killing. Killing purely for the sake of killing he did not understand but did not condemn, except when a rare bird of great beauty fell to a sportsman’s gun.
Physically he stood out in a crowd, especially in Wales, for he was a large, cheerful Englishman and could not have been mistaken for anybody else. He loved a good story and in his studio, after he had finished his work for the day, he sat back roaring with laughter as he told of his days at the Royal College in London or of earlier days on the farm in Cheshire. It seemed that it was a relief from the intense concentration that he put into his work during the day, when eye and brain and hand were harnessed in his amazing creativity.
For and artist of such distinction and of international repute, he was a truly modest man, who gave the impression that however much he had achieved, it somehow was not quite good enough. He knew that however much he knew about birds and their habits, there was so much more to know.
Whereas lesser men might have argued that to do certain commercial work would have been beneath their dignity, Charles Tunnicliffe had no such feelings for he was a professional in the best sense of the word and to a great extent it has been through his commercial work that he has been most loved. It has been loved because he himself, loving nature as he did, was able to communicate this passion to people everywhere.
Even though he admired the work of Millet and of the great oriental artists, I do not think that it ever crossed the mind of Charles Tunnicliffe that he too might create a great work of art. Were he to be told that he had, he would have dismissed the suggestion with a laugh and a “Get on with you”.
I believe that Tunnicliffe has been one of the most important artists to have lived and worked in Wales this century. Augustus John, Gwen John and Ceri Richards could not find the right motivation in their own land while David Jones conjured up dream-worlds of his own in the suburbs of London. Wales is proud of them all, but we must also feel proud of the fact that the shy Cheshire man came to live among us. Through his work the name of Anglesey is well known throughout the world, as are the places he names in his sketchbooks; Llyn Coron, Bont Farm, Lligwy, Traeth Bychan, Moelfre and others that must be incomprehensible to many people in many lands. We owe him much and he would have been very willing to say what a great contribution our land had made to his work.
The life of Charles Tunnicliffe was a lesson for any young art student, as it was a life of hard work and of constant observation. He had always been a good draughtsman, but never a facile one, for nothing had come easily to him, and what he had achieved in his middle years and in his later life was due entirely to the efforts of his youth and early manhood. He had learned to master the art of the watercolour, the transparency of the wash and the subtle addition of gouache. He had strained his eyes to their limits in making his beautiful wood-engravings. He had filled his sketchbooks with information, both artistic and scientific, that will always be referred to by those who study our wildlife, and he had created the greatest library of measured drawings of birds that the world has ever seen. No man could have done more.
Anglesey gave Charles Tunnicliffe the peace his work demanded and the ready material for it. Unambitious and content he just got on with his work, living the life of the artistic loner, a solitary figure with binoculars on the cliffs above South stack or on the Malltraeth, gazing, noting, writing and then gazing again. Wherever I go in Anglesey I will always feel that he is somewhere around.”
Sir John “Kyffin” Williams, 1918 – 2006, was a Welsh landscape painter who also lived on the Island of Anglesey. Williams is widely regarded as the defining artist of Wales during the 20th century. Although the artistic styles of Williams and Tunnicliffe were very different, they became close friends, united as they were “ by a passionate love of nature and a hatred of conceptual art”.