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.

Discarded Hollywood Glamour

Neighbours moved away yesterday. They must have dropped a picture and left it on the street. Familiar faces catch my eye; one in particular always gets me thinking.

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I separate the damp poster from its smashed frame and lay it on the pavement. The photo is at once charming and amusing; it was taken at the premier of “How to marry a millionaire” in 1953. I love the interactive snap-shot-moment of these three stars.

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Lauren Bacall seems to be admiring – and tolerating with good humour – her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who is clearly admiring something else. I imagine that he has just wise-cracked something risqué to Marilyn about some juicy titbit that he has eaten and the need to wipe his fingers afterwards. And then of course, there’s Marilyn, the greatest female icon ever, just lapping up all the attention.

Everyone would know that smile. Not everyone would know of her courageous stand and work for women in the male-dominated Hollywood of the day. Few would know that after her death, investigators’ photos of her lying in her bed were published. Worse still, mortuary photos of her awaiting a post-mortem examination were likewise published. I know of no other celebrity whose person has suffered this particular violation of privacy nor been the subject of such a gross breach of medical ethics. I find it sad that such a bright star should die with such indignity.

Ben Wilson: “Chewing Gum Man”

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I have little left of my day in London. I hurry past the Black Friar pub and find the north end the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge. It is busy. Like everyone else, I am determined to get to the Tate Modern that beckons from the south side of the river. I want to see The Clock.

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In the middle of the bridge there’s guy lying down next to an open tool box. His clothes are daubed with paint of every colour. I say hello. He’s very friendly. I ask his name. “Ben Wilson.” He replies with a broad smile. “But people call me ‘chewing gum man’!”

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Ben is relaxed and chats to anyone who stops. He’s not obviously chewing gum. I ask him what he’s doing. It’s clear he’s been asked this a thousand times. “I’m painting the chewing gum!” I gawp. I look down around my feet and along the shiny aluminium walking surface. I see there are thousands of stuck-hard pieces of discarded chewing. The penny drops. Ben’s canvas is the chewing gum! “It’s a great day for painting.” he says. “It rained last night so the gum’s clean!”

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Using acrylic and enamel paints he has created hundreds of beautiful little fantasy designs scattered along the full span of the bridge. They include humanoid, animaloid and all sorts of -oids. Each is unique and intriguing. Some bear the names of visitors. I crouch to take photos. People trip over me; Tate-goers are too polite to curse me. Ben cheers me on.

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Ben is an exhibited painter and sculptor. This work, for which he is apparently well-known in London, was inspired by his distaste for any kind of rubbish on the streets. It is a truly imaginative initiative. However, he has generated controversy. Is this vandalism? He was once dragged down to the local police station for painting public property. Clever lawyers argued that he is not defacing private property but merely painting rubbish and therefore is breaking no law.

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Ben’s project requires an extraordinary dedication. It is as original and unexpected as it is opportunistic. I am totally uplifted. This has made my day. I skip down the steps to the Tate Modern where, I’m sure, the surface of the bridge will one day be exhibited.

Take a look at more of Bens work.

Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.