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

A tribute to William T Cooper 1
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!

A tribute to William T Cooper 2
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!

A tribute to William T Cooper 3
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.

A tribute to William T Cooper 4
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.

A tribute to William T Cooper 5
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.

A tribute to William T Cooper 6
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

David Stacey 32

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.

David Stacey 33

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.

David Stacey 34

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.

David Stacey 35

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.

David Stacey 36

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

David Stacey 37

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.

David Stacey 38

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.”

David Stacey 39

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.”

David Stacey 40

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.

David Stacey 41

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.

Children in Swiss art

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is, as usual, majestic, tranquil and imposing. The difference since my last visit is that my course through the great halls and up the marble stairways is directed by coloured tape, arrows stuck on the floor and helpful staff wearing face masks. I meet Philppa Kundig, the scenographer of the current MAH exhibition “L’infant dans l’art suisse: de Agasse à Hodler.” She has, with curator Brigitte Monti, put together an exquisite exhibition of pictures and sculptures from the MAH collection of works by Swiss artists that feature children and maternity. It is at once informative, coherent and accessible; I am drawn into it to the point that I review the works and texts over and again. However, Philippa and I agree on one thing: there is a single painting that stands out from so much beautiful stuff. 

Children in Swiss art 1
Daniel Ihly “L’enterrement de mon enfant” 1884, Oil on canvas.

Daniel Ihly’s large canvas “L’enterrement de mon enfant” is stunning. Note: it is entitled “The burial of MY child.” Ihly has portrayed a tragic moment in his own life. However, the funeral procession is set far back in and just entering the scene. The priest and alter boys are followed by the undertaker who carries the be-coffined infant under his left arm. The family – presumably including Ihly and his wife – follow in turn. The most moving element of the whole piece is that he has chosen to place centre-stage not a scene of his own grief but the sincere show of respect by peasants pausing in their work (the closest of whom doubles as a kindly grim reaper.) This allows Ihly to show that the loss of an infant was, in the day, a common and therefore shared bitter experience. I would bet that the girl in the foreground who has brought her father lunch represents for Ihly what the dead infant might have become. The image is perfectly conceived, perfectly composed and technically faultless. Under the circumstances, it is extraordinary in its selflessness. This is one of those rare paintings that grabs your attention from the moment you set eyes on it and leaves an image in the mind that reappears unbidden for days.  

The section of the exhibition entitled “The Suffering of Children” makes clear that not so long ago in human existence, a child dying before the age of five was all too common. In June 2020, amid the daily clamour of COVID-19, this section underscores humans’ inevitable susceptibility to infectious disease whether measles, dypyheria, typhoid, pertussis or a novel coronavirus. 

Children in Swiss art 2
Alexandre Perrier “Jeune convalescente” 1889, Oil on canvas.

These guys could paint! Alexandre Perrier’s image of a seated child convalescing is work of high accomplishment. How can someone put paint on a canvas with the smallest of brush strokes and yet transmit that this kid has been really, really sick; that this is the first time she has been taken out into the garden; that the blanket and cushion had to be carefully placed by a carer’s hands; that she did not do up those buttons; that the daisies were placed into her left hand but failed to glean a flicker of interest; that the grip of her delicate (and superbly rendered) right hand on the wicker chair is as weak as her grip on her young life? Remarkable!

Two other equally well-conceived sections of this exhibition are “Children within family” and “Children in Society;” As a result, the MAH has conjured up a fascinating insight into people’s lives in this part of the world in late 19th and early 20th century; furthermore it serves as a chronicle of how children and parenthood were portrayed according to the rapidly changing outlook of both society and artists at the time. Inevitably, the fourth section comprises that most heavily worked subject in the history of art – “Maternity.”

Children in Swiss art 3
Wilhelm Balmer “Le Soir. Mère et enfant.” 1904 Oil on board.

Wilhelm Balmer’s tribute to the mother and child theme is a small oil-on-board portrait and is of course masterfully composed and executed. Why it catches my eye is that the new mother is not glowing with joy. She is exhausted. Here is a reminder that medical science has not only saved millions of children from the clutches of a variety of microbes but also has made giving birth an experience for the mother that is far less dangerous and traumatic than it was throughout human history.

Children in Swiss art 4
Ferdinand Hodler “Portrait of Sophie and Louis Weber” 1893 Oil on canvas.

There is no shying away from the fact that portraits of children of wealthy families were commonly commissioned – and sumptuously framed – at the time. Then what better place than at the entrance to the exhibition to be confronted by the instantly recognisable and impeccable fist of the great Swiss master, Ferdinand Hodler?  

I hope the MAH will forgive me showing here only a detail from a huge painting by Edouard Ravel. A priest tries to inject into a group of children the smallest measure of enthusiasm for their choir practice. Each child shows his or her own degree of diligence, boredom or indifference. Each is portrayed as a character. The scene amuses me enormously. I return to it time and again. My memory banks are jogged…. Surely not? It can’t be!

Children in Swiss art 5
Detail from: Edouard Ravel “Repetition de chant dans la Sacristie” 1883, Oil on canvas.

Yes, I can’t help seeing Ravel’s nineteenth century oil-on-canvas masterpiece as a forerunner of the cartoon. I hope that the MAH will also forgive me for leaving the reader with the work of Giles; another legendary observer of people – and children singing – a century later. 

Children in Swiss art 6

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff – Part 12

“While in lockdown I did a little painting of my rainbow lorikeet, Skittles, playing in water. Doesn’t have much meaning to it; it just makes me happy!”

– Bridie Becke

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff 13

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff! Have you done a painting, taken a photo or made any other beautiful stuff as a result of having to self-isolate at home? Please send us a photo and two lines of text indicating the why of it and what it means to you. We guarantee to publish it on Talking Beautiful Stuff in the weeks to come. Thank you!

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff – Part 11

Here’s Jeff Schaller’s Lockdown Beautiful Stuff.

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff 10
Lockdown Beautiful Stuff 11
Lockdown Beautiful Stuff 12

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff! Have you done a painting, taken a photo or made any other beautiful stuff as a result of having to self-isolate at home? Please send us a photo and two lines of text indicating the why of it and what it means to you. We guarantee to publish it on Talking Beautiful Stuff in the weeks to come. Thank you!