Wag a pencil Charley

A Cheshire Artist
C. F. Tunnicliffe


A dunna think ee'll mak much o'this artist business - Fellow farmer.

For many years a book with a blue dust wrapper has lain on the family bookshelves: a book from my father's boyhood, it bears all the hallmarks attributable to a wholesome 1940s childhood - a healthy outdoors feel endorsed by the B.B.C and not one I paid much attention to. Remarkable, I thought, only for its dust jacket remaining intact, the book is a first edition 'Out of doors with Nomad' by a chap called Norman Ellison aka the avuncular 'Nomad' who featured on radio alongside his eager schoolboy nephew Dick. (You can see why I wasn't particularly enthusiastic).

The Ladybird connection would be tenuous (Uncle Mac?) were it not for the book's celebrated illustrator, C.F. Tunnicliffe, who was responsible in the late 50's and early 60's for illustrating the 'season's quartet in the nature series 536 and The Farm. Since making this observation - embarassingly late - I have come to appreciate the book (though I will never be a robustly red-cheeked nature girl - hayfever has put paid to any love for the outdoors!). Although he illustrated only a handful of LB books, collectors and LB lovers will be familiar with his work. The distinct style of the 'season' books make them highly collectable; they are among the most recognisable and popular of the traditional LBs. There is an excellent feature on Tunnicliffe by G. Moore. Lest I be accused of repeating this information, I'd like to continue with some of the artist's personal observations and my own.

But first a potted history for absolute beginners...

Tunnicliffe was born in the Cheshire village of Langly in 1901. He spent his entire boyhood there at his father's farm and attended the village school where his love of art (lessons 3 times a week) helped to over-shadow the less popular writing, reading and arithmetic. At 14 he was encouraged to attend art school, but continued to live and work at the farm until he was nineteen when he won a place at the Royal College, London. In his fourth year he joined the College engraving school.

He remained in London for a total of 7 years - in which time his work was published. He returned to his Cheshire homeland but under changed circumstances. With his father now dead and the farm sold, that rural idyll no longer existed. He contacted the publishers of Henry Williamson, author of among others Tarka the Otter, and it was through this succesful partnership that Tunnicliffe, perhaps a little restless, embarked on travelling around the British Isles starting with Devon for Tarka, the Downs for Peregrine's Saga and Scotland for Williamson's study on the Atlantic salmon.

By the 50's Tunnicliffes's reputation was secured. A Royal Academician, he was chief cover artist for the RSPB's bird notes for 12 years. In 1968 he was made vice-president of the Society of Wildlife Artists and he was awarded an OBE a year before his death in 1979.

A country boy born and bred, Tunnicliffe's creative insatiability led him to draw on all available surfaces, including the whitewashed exteriors and interiors of the farm buildings until a present of a sketch book ensured a farm free of defaced walls!

His first influences after enrolment at art school included Joseph Crawhill and Arthur Warle. He started to sketch zoo animals too - inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs eponymous hero Tarzan! His family home dated from 1707 and was a wonderful source of sketching material. If one studies the Farm book one will see 'sections' of his own home depicted alongside that of a neighbouring farm - Lee Farm as 'The Farm'. They are also depicted in the other titles and characters which appear in the Nature books may well be based on his attempt to portray all the villagers, a project he undertook soon after leaving London. It met with a mixed response - one farmer's wife, echoing in part Lady Churchill, threatened to tear down the exhibition if her husband's picture was shown; another farmer threatened to shoot him with his 12 bore if he attempted to draw him!

As a student at the Royal College, Tunnicliffe's life was divided between the intellectual - a deep appreciation of Breughel, Durer, Constable and Cotman - and hard physical labour on the farm during holidays. Fellow farm workers were not impressed by his other 'life' 'Any dam' fool con wag a pencil, Charley, but it taks a good mon to muck a shippon out' commented one such acquaintance..

Tunnicliffe was desperately home sick when he went up to London. He lived in a miserable bed-sit in Earls Court, longing for his horse and the fresh air. In time he settled and it is interesting as he recalls his student days how the painting School "was dominated by the study of the human figure and the compositions demanded were figure compositions. So I studiously drew and painted from the life, but for my compositions I always made use of my farmers and farming scenes. If a composition was required with 'Summer' as its subject, I could think of nothing but the mowing and carting of Hay. 'Winter' meant the hungry cattle and the big knife cutting into the hay stacks, a pig killing scene, or a group of rough-coated colts with their tails to the weather.
- A prototype I'm sure for the seasons nature series.

Interestingly the church which appears in Spring (pg.49) is not his beloved St. James' where he was a chorister and was introduced to Bach and Mendelssohn (I should like to have added Verdi but have no proof!) but the Church in Gawsworth (haunted, it is said, by Mary Fytton -The 'Dark Lady'). Gawsworth was a favourite location for Tunnicliffe, particularly in Spring. As so many place names are mentioned and visually depicted in Tunnicliffe's illustrated auto-biography 'My Country Book', it would perhaps not be too difficult to identify some of them in his LB illustrations. However some are amalgamations, such as the farm and one must also bear in mind he travelled the islands and highlands of the British Isles!. However LB collectors in Cheshire may wish to visit Reedes Mere and Goldstich Moss to begin with!

I will end this short biography with an evocative quote from Tunnicliffe, but first one should be armed with a copy of Winter:

'As I close the Stable door, dawn is breaking over the eastern hills, annd a landscape blue-white with hoar frost is revealed. A tempting smell of bacon comes from the kitchen, a fit and proper smell for such a winter's morning and, after cleaning my boots on a piece of old sacking, I go to breakfast.

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