CHARLES FREDERICK TUNNICLIFFE, R.A, O.B.E.
1901 - 1979
"The verdict of posterity in time to come is likely, I believe to rate Charles Tunnicliffe the greatest wildlife artist of the 20th century" - Peter Scott
Charles or Charlie as he was called by his three older sisters was born on 1st December 1901 in the small village of Langley on the edge of the Cheshire Plain. When he was only a few months old the family moved to Lanes Ends Farm for the sake of his father's health. It was here that Tunnicliffe spent his childhood doing tasks around the small farm and coming into close contact with domestic livestock. He spent much time drawing these animals on the newly whitewashed walls of the cowsheds and byre, much to the annoyance of William, his father, but to the delight of the villagers, eager to admire his latest additions. The appreciation of his early illustrations did not stretch to his father, who expressed in blunt terms that he would not make a living wagging a pencil. Fortunately, his mother, Margaret, did not share these misgivings and encouraged his talent buying crayons and sketch pads for the young lad. The headmaster of the Sutton village school realised his artistic ability and Charles won a scholarship to Macclesfield School of Art. Here the principal suggested that he should apply for a place at the Royal College of Art.
Charles Tunnicliffe OBE at the Cob pool, Malltraeth.
Winning a scholarship meant a move to London and a tiny bedsit in Earls Court, a far cry from the open Cheshire countryside, it's wildlife and the farm. Food parcels from home and visits to Regent's Park Zoo and the Natural History Museum made life a little more bearable. Perhaps most distraction came from a fellow student, Winifred Woonacott, a bright, lively and gentle girl from Belfast. She was later to become Mrs Tunnicliffe. After completing his course and teaching at Woolwich Polytechnic his time in London came to an end with a return to Macclesfield and married life.
Winifred after reading Henry Williamson's "Tarka the Otter" encouraged her husband to send some illustrations for a future edition of the book. The publishers were delighted with the idea and after a few alterations his beautiful illustrations graced the 1932 edition. This was a breakthrough and brought in some much needed funds. Further illustrations were used in other Williamson books including "The Peregrine Saga". Accuracy and detail was a mark of Tunnicliffe's work and he researched his subjects carefully. Such research brought him eye to eye with a Peregrine on a falconer's wrist at a meet in Avebury, Wiltshire, from that moment he made a commitment to wildlife art and birds in particular. Eventually author and illustrator had serious differences of opinion and the friendship collapsed but his career had been launched.
Tunnicliffe,Winifred,'Wack' (T G Walker) and Wil Evans in the Studio.
During World War II Charles became an art master at Manchester Grammar School. Whilst here a German bomb took the life of a school colleague, the event took its toll. A well earned rest was required and Charles and Winifred headed to Nant Bychan Farm, near Moelfre on Anglesey. During his time here whilst watching and sketching birds he met T. G. "Wack" Walker, a naturalist and headmaster of Henblas School, Bodorgan. The two soon formed a strong friendship sharing a common interest in wildlife and art. Letters crossed back and forth between Cheshire and Anglesey, Wack describing the waders and wildfowl he had seen at Malltraeth. Visits to the island became more and more frequent, often staying with Mr and Mrs Bob Jones at the Joiners Arms. On one of their visits the couple noticed a bungalow called Shorelands on the very edge of the Cefni Estuary. So taken were they with the property they asked the landlord to inform them if it ever came on the market. Shortly afterwards the house was up for sale and the Tunnicliffe's bought the bungalow without hesitation
On 27th March 1947 they arrived at Shorelands, after a few problems with the removal lorry at the neighbouring church. The artist inspired by the wonderful clear light, the unspoilt expanse of the estuary and its birds, these never ending subjects soon filled his sketch books. In 1952 Collins published "Shorelands Summer Diary" a record of Tunnicliffe's first summer on Anglesey. This classic publication, the first edition now very collectable, is full of black and white scraper boards and several wonderful colour plates. Not only does it record the birds of the area but also includes many views of the village and its inhabitants.
Shorelands Summer Diary by C F Tunnicliffe.
An illustration of what to look for in the autum showing a local Malltraeth scene by Tunnicliffe.
He was at his best and most productive at Shorelands and his work was constantly in demand, varying from adverts from Bob Martins to Boots, to private commissions. He wrote several books and illustrated dozens more, perhaps some of you will remember collecting tea cards of Brooke Bond P G Tips to stick in the well illustrated albums of British birds, wild flowers, Asian wildlife etc. Perhaps you will recall the Ladybird series of What to Look for in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter or sticking postage stamps celebrating the Wetlands and Wildlife anniversary on to envelopes. All are examples of Tunnicliffe's work.
Illustration on a Brooke Bond tea card by C F Tunnicliffe.
Radio Times cover illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe.
He became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1954, one of the very few wildlife artists to gain such acclaim. This focused his work to produce entries for their annual summer exhibition in London, all his works normally sold on the day of the private view. He did not attend these exhibitions and with typical modesty and with his dry sense of humour stated that he "Preferred the birds of Anglesey to those of Piccadilly." Accuracy and detail was always his target and to ensure that people could not criticize the colour and form of his wildlife subjects he kept a series of what he called "feather maps". These delightful measured drawings are mini-encyclopaedias of the plumage, feathers and colour of each specimen. Many of the dead birds were collected by local people and young boys, who sometimes were greeted with a gruff thank you if he was interrupted whilst laying down a water colour wash but more often than not rewarded with half a crown These detailed references number about 360 and are considered by many to be some of his finest work and are now part of the Oriel Ynys Môn's collection. It was these "feather maps" that attracted the attention of friend and fellow artist Kyffin Williams who persuaded the Royal Academy to mount an exhibition in 1974 described by Harris Ching as "the finest exhibition of bird art he had ever seen".
Feather map of a pintail duck - C F Tunnicliffe.
His studies of bird life led to a close association with the RSPB, producing many cards, calendars and covers for their magazines. Such work for them and conservation was rewarded with the Society's Gold Medal in 1975 and with an O.B.E in 1978. Sadly his beloved Winifred died in 1974 and did not witness these well earned accolades. She had given up her career and supported Charles day in day out, even taking much needed hot drinks whilst he sketched Pintails on Cob Pool in the depth of winter. She was an important part of his life and after her death Shorelands became a desolate and lonely place and his appetite for work dwindled. Nevertheless the desire to draw and paint never left him, but as his health and eyesight deteriorated his work also suffered. No longer was he able to swim in the sea something he did regularly when younger or walk across the sands to Llanddwyn Island. After a sortie into the cold February air he slumped into a chair in the back room of Shorelands and succumbed to a final heart attack.
An RSPB magazine cover illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe.
Royal Mail stamps illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe.
His unexpected death meant there was much of his work in his studio, including the chest of measured drawings. It is thought that Tunnicliffe wanted his work to be left to a Welsh Art Gallery but there was no will and the family decided to sell the works at auction. Christie's produced a catalogue of 373 lots to be sold in London on 15th May 1981. The sale was a contentious issue and was even debated during Margaret Thatcher's Prime Minister's question time. In one last bid to save the collection local Tunnicliffe devotees drew the Anglesey Borough Council's attention to the auction. To their credit the island's councillors responded quickly and purchased the studio collection. Funds and donations were organised from the Shell Oil Fund, National Memorial Heritage Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the RSPB and other bodies. After a further ten years of bitter debate and controversy the Oriel Ynys Môn Gallery was purpose built to house the collection and display Anglesey's outstanding heritage, culture and history. On 25th October 1991 Her Majesty the Queen opened the award winning gallery, so offering us the chance to admire the wonderful works, painted in the studio in Malltraeth, of this most gifted artist.
"We still find it difficult to believe that we really live and work in this place so close to the birds and the sea."
"Looking south-east is the mile-wide estuary. Beyond, filling the middle distance is a long ridge of high ground criss-crossed by hedges and dotted about with farms, which at its seaward end deteriorates into rock and sand-dune, and above the ridge loom the great mountains of Caernarvonshire, the kingdom of Eryri, with Snowdon lording it over all - a stupendous panorama."
Charles Tunnicliffe's own words from Shoreland's Summer Diary.
A typical winter scene at Malltraeth, that Charles Tunnicliffe would have
observed out of his studio window at Shorelands.
Charles Tunnicliffe at work in his studio at Shorelands, Malltraeth.
A panel by the local Malltraeth artist, Philip Snow BA.
and sketches of his birds for it.
Charles Tunnicliffe's drawings can be seen at ORIEL MON, Llangefni
For further information on Anglesey's heritage, visit - www.angleseyheritage.org/