Garth

About Garth

Cartoonist and rock musician. Passionate about wildlife and representations of it. Lives Down Under!

A tribute to William T Cooper, bird artist (1934 – 2015)

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Red-tailed Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus magnificus)

I am in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland, Australia. I catch just a flash of colour high in the trees; one of this country’s wonderful parrots. I am reminded of a treasured book at home: Joseph M. Forshaw’s “Parrots of the World” exquisitely illustrated by William T. Cooper (Doubleday, 1978.)

At an information centre near Malanda, I have a leisurely coffee and spot a DVD for sale of a documentary by Sarah Scragg entitled “Birdman: The art of William T. Cooper.” Quite a coincidence! But then… maybe not. It turns out that this genius ornithological illustrator was Australian who lived and worked just around the corner!

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Rosella species (Platycercus Sp.)

The film briefly documents Cooper’s artistic life into his eighties but concentrates on him creating some thirty paintings for his last exhibition. It was filmed over the two years it took him to produce these works. It was fascinating to watch this modest and kindly man bring to life his subject matter on canvas. Cooper was completely likeable, described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive. You cannot better this. This is it!’ Sure is!

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St. Vincent Amazon (Amazona guildingii)

Cooper started his career as a self-taught landscape and seascape painter. He illustrated his first bird book in 1968 and, with Foreshaw, published Parrots of The World, Birds of Paradise & Bowerbirds of The World, Kingfishers of the World, definitive works on Turacos, Bee-eaters, Hornbills and Pigeons of Australia. He must have walked the same tracks as I did through the Tablelands.  

He called himself a professional bird illustrator. It was his life, his passion and his daily work. His output was prolific. Over 45 years Cooper made hundreds of astonishingly accurate and beautiful illustrations and paintings of birds. In the film, he states that as a child “birds drove me insane.” I know exactly what he means. That total absorption in the study of amphibians and reptiles is similarly an insanity for me. I recognise that ‘insanity’ – that ‘love’ – at play in his work. The birds and backgrounds are perfect.

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Vulturine Parrot (Gypopsitta vulture)

The film shows Cooper collecting reference material for the backgrounds to his birds. He shot fruit down from the canopy with a powerful air rifle. He brought home lichen-covered boughs from the forest floor. Latterly, digital photography replaced his thousands of sketches of background landscapes and wildflowers. He was rare among illustrators in that he would travel abroad to sketch as many of his subjects that he could in their habitats. Often a zoo visit would have to suffice. This practise, he explains, enabled him to put that final layer of accuracy into his birds; their ‘jiz’, their essence, the characteristics that are unique to each species. His studio included drawers filled with bird skins, feathers and much more. This complete dedication to accuracy, not only in the subjects but also in the backgrounds too, makes him one of the foremost scientific Illustrators of all time. Attenborough describes the difference between Cooper’s scientific illustration, where points of identification are necessary, and the paintings that he did for exhibitions. He could be free from science then and his work takes on a liveliness not seen in his book plates. However, as evidenced by the parrots shown here, he managed to make his scientific illustrations vibrant too and Attenborough acknowledges this as one of Cooper’s greatest skills.

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Great-billed Parrot (Tanygnathus megalorynchos) and Blue-naped Parrot (Tanygnathus luciorensis)

As I watch Cooper at work and listen to his commentary I can’t help noticing the similarities between his working methods and mine. There is dedication to accuracy. There is collection of background materials and photography of subjects for reference. He uses transparent overlays to test ideas. With a mirror he can check composition and symmetry. He speaks of often being dissatisfied with his work and will destroy the output of days if it does not reach his exacting standards. But there the similarities end. I can only stand in Cooper’s shadow. I only work in one medium whereas Cooper is master of all. My output is limited and I’ve hardly ever sold my work. Quite simply, I finally realise, I am not in the same league.

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Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)

The film ends at the exhibition. Every painting was sold within ten minutes. Cooper states that he is pleased but appears genuinely embarrassed by his success and fuss people are making of him. He can’t wait to get back to his rainforest home in Malanda to enjoy a cup of tea on his veranda; brewed precisely for five minutes as set by a timer. What a guy!

David Stacey: significant, unique and original

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I am back in Tropical North Queensland in Kuranda. The township is a small but internationally renowned destination that sits atop a mountain ridge surrounded by the oldest rainforests on Earth. By day it’s a tourist mecca of art galleries, a famous hippie market, zoos, eateries and craft shops. By night the indigenous Australians claim back the empty streets. I am here once again to visit David Stacey in his studio.

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As I walk in, my friend David is applying acrylic paint to a large, colourful and incredibly complex painting. Tourists dawdle past perusing his works on the walls. A woman asks as if in disbelief “Did you paint this?” Others just go straight through to the indoor market beyond. How does David feel about painting in public? This new activity, plus a subtle change that I detect in his work, prompts me to think about a third article about him and his work for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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I look around at his new works. The guy has a prodigious output! They are larger and more colourful, if that were possible. There are fewer species’ portraits and more surreal, dreamlike paintings. It is subtle and he agrees that he has evolved in some way. However, the busy gallery is no place for digging a bit deeper so David invites me to go ‘bush’ with him on his next walk deep in the rainforest of the Atherton Tablelands.

A few days later, in khaki and with backpacks filled with water and tucker, we enter the trackless rainforest near Malanda. David has just told me how he was once lost in the bush south of Cairns for three days and, on top, nearly died after being bitten by a venomous Red-bellied Black Snake. I admit to being nervous. I too have been lost in forests. I’d like to avoid a repeat.

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We chat as we go. With apparent ease, David finds the exact place where, years ago, he had discovered the extraordinary twin towers of the bower built by the male Golden Bowerbird.  We sit and observe this beautiful rare bird at work. On navigating back out of the forest, David constantly points out things of interest: leaves, flowers, fruits, droppings, tree bark, insects and birds calling from the canopy. The eye of this artist-naturalist misses nothing. I am an obsessive natural historian and can tell you that David Stacey knows his stuff! This knowledge and love of his native flora, fauna, landscape and ecologies shines out from his work. I am privileged to watch and learn from this very private man, now in his true element.

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Here’s the Golden Bowerbird in one of David’s new paintings. That’s him sitting right above the frog!

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Next stop is the home of a Tablelands animal carer who rescued a possum joey after its mother had been road-killed. My job is to photograph the animal in various poses and take close-ups of its anatomy. David is planning a painting that will include this animal; accurate detail of species is part of the power and beauty of his work. The Green Ringtail Possum is endemic to the high canopy of the region’s rainforest. Having this incredible creature climbing over me is thrilling. In many people’s opinion, it is the most beautiful of mammals. I cannot disagree.

So what did we talk about as the day’s adventure unfolded? David does not enjoy painting in public. Constant questioning and repetition of the questions interrupt him. People touch his work, jostle him and get too close. He has to man the gallery nevertheless. Painting at the same time increases his output and he recognises that observing him with brush in hand creates more interest in his very particular beautiful stuff.

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Technique intrigues me and I wanted to know how David achieves the smoky mist effect in this painting. He uses an old, worn-out brush in a ‘feathering’ way. Ingenious! There was me thinking airbrush!

We discussed the similarities and differences in our working practices and attitudes to our creativity. This was revealing. I call achieving accuracy at every stage of the work “keeping my eye on the ball.” He calls it “keeping my hands on the reins.” In terms of the ego we differ. I need accolades to boost my credibility and self-confidence. David wants to have a place in art history: his “legacy.” He wants it to be “significant, unique and original.” He has pretty much achieved that. A “Stacey” is instantly recognised, but above all, admired. However, I wanted to know what he meant by “significant.”

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He is happy to explain what is “significant” about his new work. Before, he would paint the landscapes and species because he was inspired by his interest in and love for them. Now that inspiration is underpinned by a profound concern for the state of the planet. He feels that he is now driven by a need to inform by expressing the beauty of his subject matter. He tells me he is “informing through art as a catalyst for change in attitude.” He uses the terms “visual literacy” and “stories through images.”

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This makes sense to me as I could see it working in the larger, more surreal works that he is creating. “Surreal” is his description; he explains it as ‘juxtaposing different aspects by a form of collage or montage. This, he says, gives more value for money. There are more aspects and subjects to look at and because of this more can be hidden; this then allows the viewer to a more open and personal interpretation. However, he adds, more can also be revealed, and that includes more obvious messages, stories and information. He always places importance in his own meanings within the work.

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I am now back in the UK. David sends me a photo of the painting he was working on. He tells me that he didn’t enjoy doing it. Well, the world will enjoy it. Like its creator, it is definitely significant, unique and original. 

Thank you for everything David. I wish you and Sandy the very best for the future.

Death and Alabaster

It is hot July in England. The dusty scent of harvesting and the silent dancing of brown butterflies amongst the tired grass informs my senses of where we are in the universal round. Quiet lanes take me deep into the Norfolk countryside to a place I discovered many years ago and then lost the knowledge of where to find it again. A recent interest in photographing the churches of the County led me back to the small church at Stratton Strawless; lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

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This unexceptional country church holds a true treasure inside its musty, cool interior. Along the southeast wall are two very creepy, tombs….or are they beautiful, poignant memorials to the great landowners of the parish?

The first that you see at the end of an aisle of secondhand books is the memorial to Thomas Marsham who died in 1638.

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He struggles to rise in his shroud and this, according to my research, is the first time the resurrection was portrayed on a memorial. His high position in the heirarchy of Freemasonry is carved below and a hideous collection of bones and dried hands seemingly press against a grill at the base of the memorial, creating a feeling of claustrophobia as I imagine myself thus imprisoned with the dead.

There are many memorials to the Marshams down the ages in this church but the only one to match that of Thomas is the tomb and memorial to the family of Henry Marsham. I feel instantly and extremely sad as I view the pale family praying to a God whose plan and will Henry presumably accepted as his family was destroyed one by one.

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The first of his family to die is Henry’s daughter Margaret at the age of one year. The dead, wrapped child stands like some weird pupa beside her mother. Henry’s wife Anne dies in childbirth with an unborn son in the June of 1678 and his son Henry junior follows at the age of twelve, being taken in the November of the same year. Henry dies in 1692.

I am unable to find out who the creators of these memorials were. Their work is highly skilled and accomplished, rendering in perfect realism the subjects. This I admire greatly and admiration begins to overcome what were feelings of revulsion mixed with fascination and sadness. These works are from an age so different from ours, telling us of their beliefs, their fears and imaginings, their story and perhaps of the requirement to be remembered in a way appropriate to the position they held in society.

The sculpted material is Alabaster, not marble as I had previously supposed. Alabaster is softer and easier to carve. It has a beautiful transluscency unlike marble but can be very carefully heated in boiling water to reduce this quality to produce a fake marble called Marmo di Castellino. Alabaster is porous and can be easily dyed to give it a more marble-like appearance, such as we see with these memorials. The memorials were restored in 2007 after the iron supports had rusted away and threatened to break up the Alabaster.

To the amateur historian and geneaologist of England’s past the Marsham memorials are a treasure. The necessity for great artistry to be used in order that the memorials were spectacular and would be beautiful to behold in ages to come means that they are undoubtedly works of art and ‘beautiful stuff’. However, one should never forget that within them lie what remains of people who lived and so can properly be used as a focus for a one-way communication with them. Is that not the true purpose of a memorial?

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Thomas Marsham resurrecting

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The Masonic symbols on Thomas Marsham’s memorial

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The sculpted skulls and bones on the Thomas Marsham memorial

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Henry Marsham junior’s epitaph

Herring Boats in Overstrand

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I imagine Overstrand in England’s late 19th century. It is winter. The grey North Sea can be heard crashing its rollers on the beach below the cliffs. The cry of gulls on the gale add but more wildness to the day. In the cottages here on the remote coast of North Norfolk, candlelight illuminates the dish of herring that form the evening meal of the population. This is a horsedrawn world, quiet, non-electric, non-digital, with time to think and ponder your life. Your heroes are the sailors who bring home these silver fishes for your dishes, the seamen, your relatives and friends, who brave the storms in their sailing boats – and latterly powered by steam engines – in order to harvest the great North Sea of its bounty. Death is always near; if not from drowning, he visits with disease and injury in a time long before our National Health Service. Such a different life from ours today!

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My imaginings were prompted by what I had just discovered on a hot, Summer’s afternoon whilst walking past an old cottage atop Overstrand’s cliffs. My eye had caught the exquisite rendering of herring boats – “drifters” – carved into the brickwork of the cottage wall. Each boat sails upon a sea of cement below the brick. The gaff-rigged sails, steam chimney and upward angled prow of the vessel speak of a deep knowledge of the subject.

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I feel a connection to a person now dead who took the time to scratch these important images of their life into the bricks. What was the purpose? Was it simply a love of the boats? Was it hero worship or some deeper, spiritual ceremony to bring luck or success in the hunt for the elusive shoals? All I have to work with is this evidence on the cottage wall. The rest is conjecture but nevertheless, I am in a culture now past. I gulp and a tear rolls. I am deeply moved.

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Here’s to you! Fishing here was your life; all consuming, necessary and endless. You were born, you fished and you died. Occasionally you would carve another boat on that cottage wall. Did you do it for me? Were you seeking some form of immortality? Whatever your reasons – thank you.

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Revisiting David Stacey’s Natural World

Scientific latin flows easily as painter David Stacey and I talk about frogs in his gallery-studio in Kuranda, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

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Turning from the subject of Litoria xanthomera breeding in chlorinated swimming pools we move to view his painting of Litoria rothii. This fabulous rendering of a Northern Laughing Tree Frog clinging to a lichen covered tree with its sucker-like toe pads is simply exquisite. The identification points and character, or ‘jiz’, of this species, one that I know well and have painted myself, is captured to perfection. The fine, warty detail, camouflaging patterns and striking yellow and black ‘flash markings’ are, to me, deliciously amphibian. I want to touch it. I notice other frogs in the original works, reproductions and greetings cards around me. They all have the same effect on me.

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Orange-thighed Tree Frog – Litoria xanthomera

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Northern Laughing Tree Frog – Litoria rothii

I have written about David Stacey before. His work reveals a man deeply connected to his subjects; namely, the environments, ecologies and species of the world’s most ancient rainforests which are found only in this part of Australia. This connection seems to lead naturally, in his words, towards ‘obsession’. The sheer volume of his output since our last meeting does indeed testify to an obsession.

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Pandanus fruit segments, beetles and other matter

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Gmelina fasciculiflora

David is generous with his time. We talked about technique and style, composition and reference material. His style is unique; a ‘Stacey’ would be recognised anywhere. His latest major exhibition, featuring 70 paintings, was held at Brisbane’s prestigious Redhill Gallery during November 2016. The exhibition consisted mainly of his fine, pen and ink drawings which he then “colours in” with wonderfully opaque acrylic washes overlaid, where necessary, with thicker acrylic application. (All the works shown in this post are from the exhibition). We also discussed problems that being ‘artistic’ can bring!

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Amorbus Sp – Davies Creek

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Resting – Azure Kingfisher

However, it is David’s sense of composition that particularly impresses me. How he thinks his trademark compositions through to completion is a marvel. He balances colour, tone, form and space. He leads the eye; sometimes by not colouring or leaving something out. It is as if he considers your peripheral vision as well as your focus when composing. Clever! Some of his paintings leave me imagining what might be there that he has left out. This is the same feeling I get in the rainforest where so much is hidden in the green, luxuriant half-light.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

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Emerald Dove

This compositional prowess effectively renders each painting far more than just a portrait of a species. (My own paintings, however hard I try, always end up being just that). David’s works stand alone as accomplished creations, pleasing to the eye, where the subject matter of the painting becomes simply one element among many that make up the whole.

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Peacock Spider – Maratus speciosus

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Harlequin Bug – Tectocoris diopthalmus

David has another ‘style’ which is extraordinary. He describes it as ‘surrealist’. It is these works that hold me in fascination as I explore them. They are conglomerations of images: landscapes, creatures and plants, abstract patterns and even maps. They are dream-like, thematic and thought-provoking and are woven together with his accomplished, compositional artistry.

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The sky has fallen

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Fragmentation

Our conversation was far more than just an interview for this post. I learned stuff! I also identified our shared obsessive need to portray the natural history that fills our minds with interest, respect and appreciation. We have in common those lonesome journeys and vigils in the wild places where we observe and photograph reference material and add to our knowledge and understanding of the wild. We talked of the difficulties of being obsessional ‘artists’ and how our work is profoundly personal being often difficult to market. At times, we have both ‘prostituted’ ourselves to create for a commercial market driven by conventions, expectations and desires of others. More than once David used the expression “money is corrupting”.

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Double-eyed Fig Parrot

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Zodiac Moth – Alcides metaurus

These days in Kuranda are my last in Australia. I am about to migrate back to Britain after four years of trying, unsuccessfully, to assimilate into life here. But David Stacey is where he should be. As a man so connected to the rainforests of his home he clearly understood my similar connection to the natural history of Britain and Europe. We spoke of the recognised phenomenon where an Aborigine may die if removed from his ‘country.’ In this extraordinary painter-naturalist, I found a kindred spirit who understood and acknowledged my expression, ‘homesickness is a gentle term for grief’.