Since I was a child the work of Charles Tunnicliffe RA has dominated my approach to drawing and painting.

He had a deep understanding of animals, particularly domestic animals and birds, and his ability to portray them in line and colour was masterly. I examined his application of paint, the way his wood engravings were full of light and contrast, strength, rhythm and movement. His work had a power and vitality as well as magnificent draughtsmanship and artistry which fired my imagination and gave me encouragement in my own efforts. I was not surprised to learn that he was a great admirer of Albrecht Durer, and this is echoed in Tunnicliffe’s own fine wood engravings and etchings. Like Tunnicliffe, I grew up near Macclesfield on the edge of the Derbyshire hills but I did my initial training near Manchester at the Salford College of Art. My first introduction to Tunnicliffe’s work was when my father used to take me to the annual exhibition of the Manchester Academy. I was fascinated by his pictures and they were always the first I sought out and the last I visited before leaving. They were generally wonderful wood engravings of farm animals and masterly watercolours of different types of birds.

Charles Tunnicliffe was born in 1901, in the small village of Langley, near Macclesfield on the Cheshire-Derbyshire border. He was the only surviving son among four sisters, and when the family moved a few miles to Sutton Lane Ends, he grew up and worked on the farm owned by his parents.
He recalls, in his early autobiography My Country Book, the delight he felt as a small child, drawing with a brand new stick of chalk on the wooden wall of the cart shed, and covering it with pictures of farm animals and poultry. Later he was given a sketch block, bit this treasure didn’t last long and he continued to draw on anything he could lay his hands on. When he went to school, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were highlights of the week as these were art class days.

The Shire Stallion, wood engraving, (9x11”)

As he grew older Charles’s headmaster, Mr Buckley Moffett, realised that here was a budding artist of talent and, encouraged by Charles’s parents, showed some work to the principal of the Macclesfield School of Art. Here he won, not only a place, but a scholarship. He still worked on the farm but all his spare time was spent drawing and painting. He would saddle Polly the black mare and ride up into the hills overlooking Macclesfield and away to the Welsh mountains across the Cheshire Plain. He drew and painted. Not only the countryside but his friends and neighbours and their cattle and horses. Sometimes he went down to the cattle Market in Macclesfield . Here, as well as cattle and sheep, were the magnificent shire horses and stallions which were paraded up and down to show their paces. These animals appear often in his work during this period.

The principal of the Art School, Mr Thomas Cartwright, later decided to put his work forward to the Royal College of Art in London. Here again he won a scholarship, for £80 a year to carry him through his training, and he moved to London and lived in lodgings. He writes how he missed the country and the farm, and most of all the animals. London Zoo provided animal models, and there is a fine drawing of a leopard among others in his sketchbook, but he longed for home.

In his second year at college he met a fellow student, Winifred Wonnacott, who was later to become his wife. In his fourth year he joined the engraving school and soon excelled in the art of etching. His time there stood him in good stead when he left the College and became a wood engraver.
For a while he took a part time teaching post at Woolwich Polytechnic and moved into digs at Waltham Green to be nearer to his work. He taught design and poster work while at Woolwich. His father died in July 1925 and soon afterwards the farm was sold.

In 1928 Charles decided to leave London and return to Macclesfield. Winifred found a post as a peripatetic teacher of art in the Manchester area and Charles taught the same subject for a time at the Manchester Grammar School. Charles continued to draw all types of domestic animals and birds and made commercial wood cuts for agricultural firms and makers of dog foods, who soon wanted him to do signed colour work.

Charles and Winifred were married and moved to a house in Macclesfield. At Winifred’s suggestion Charles offered himself as an illustrator for Henry Williamson’s book Tarka the Otter, and thus began his lifelong work on book illustration. Within 40 years he produced 88 books, six of which were written and illustrated by himself. Eight of Allison Utley’s books of country essays have his illustrations, and he illustrated six of Henry Williamson’s books, the best known beingTarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon. A book of fairy tales collected by Dr Frazer Darling, Tales from Ebony, have unusual and striking coloured paintings, perhaps influenced by Islamic art. Tunnicliffe expressed pleasure at these pictures and they have a vigour and charm which is a delight.

The Chartley Bull, wood engraving, (9x11”)

An outstandingly beautifully produced book is Mary Priestly’s anthology A Book of Birds, in which the highest standard of reproduction of the handsome woodcuts is on the finest paper. This was published by Gollancz and a copy is well worth seeking out to see wood engraving at
its best.

In Mereside Chronicle, studies in words and pictures of the wild life of the Cheshire pools and lakes, the illustrations are in sepia tinted monochrome which have an attractive subtle quality. My Country Book is a written and illustrated account of his early life, showing many of the pictures made while studying in London as well as the countryside around his home near Macclesfield. The recently published sketch books are a fascinating into the way he worked with pencil, crayon, pen and watercolour there are also written notes on colour and location, and remarks about the animals and birds in the sketches and drawings.

While living at Macclesfield the Tunnicliffes spent a holiday in Anglesey and stayed in Nant Bych farm at Moelfre. It was there they met “Wack” Walker and this meeting was the start of a lifelong friendship and a sharing of their great interest in bird watching. Wack brought Charles dead birds he picked up in the countryside from which Tunnicliffe made detailed drawings. Charles and Winifred visited Bodorgan and Malltraeth and fell in love with the beauty of the estuary area and the variety of the bird life. While staying in North Wales they explored the country around Snowdon and the Lleyn Peninsula.

New approach

In March 1947 they finally left Macclesfield and moved to Anglesey to Shorelands, a bungalow overlooking the waters of the estuary, with its abundance of bird life and views away to the distant mountains. Nearby was Cob Lake where Tunnicliffe was able to draw and paint, among other birds, the Crested Grebe. In Anglesey Tunnicliffe withdrew into a quieter life and concentrated on painting his favourite subjects, but as he became better known to the general public, partly as a result of his book Shorelands Summer Diary, many more people visited him. Some wanted animal and bird pictures while others wished to discuss bird watching.

Before moving from Maccelsfield, Tunnicliffe had decided to try a new approach to oil painting. He wanted to produce a matt finish rather than the usual shiny surface. On Winifred’s suggestion he stretched some plain dress material and cut stencils with which he devised his own method of painting on the fabric. The result had very much the effect of a Chinese or Japanese painting. These oil stencils, with their matt finish, had a very unusual delicate texture.

The Edge of the Wood, watercolour

In 1938 he had an exhibition of them in a London gallery. Unfortunately it was not a success and none were sold; how different from later reaction, when all his entries in the Royal Academy were generally snapped up on the first day. As well as being in many private collections, his work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the National Gallery in Stockholm also has some of his wood engravings. In 1944 Tunnicliffe was made an ARA and ten years later was elected a full Royal Academician.

From the window of his studio at Shorelands, overlooking the estuary, he observed and painted. He watched the birds fishing along the shoreline, the oystercatchers pausing in their quick runs to probe for shellfish. When the geese came sweeping in as winter approached he caught their wingbeats for all to see in his sketch notes. The numerous sketches and notes formed the basis of many of the pictures which later hung in the Academy and other shows.

Sadly Winifred became ill, and in 1969 she died. It was a great blow to him and his own health suffered. His eyesight began to give him trouble, but his courage and dedication to his work helped him. Although he could not do the fine line engravings as before, he continued to paint, concentrating more and more on the post mortem measured watercolours of birds.

Source of information

In 1974 he was honoured by having an exhibition of his work staged at the Diploma Galleries at the Royal Academy. The following year the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds awarded him their gold medal. His later years were spent at Shorelands, tirelessly making his measured anatomical drawings of birds which are an invaluable source of information to artists and students of bird life. A modest and retiring man, he made no show of the fact that he was made an OBE In 1978. He died in 1979, leaving a heritage of fine paintings and illustrations.

Black Headed Gull, Cob Lake, March 24, 1951.
Taken from ‘Sketches of Bird Life’ by Robert Gillmor published by Victor Gollancz ltd London

Reproduced here is The Shire Stallion and, as in foil, The Chartley Bull (see images above). Each is a fine example of his wood engraving. Each measures 11” x 9” and they are most exacting large engravings. Sir Alfred Munnings corresponded with Tunnicliffe about The Shire Stallion, appreciating his knowledge and portrayal of a fine bred horse. I, too, am particularly fond of this engraving. Added to my admiration of its execution is my pleasure in having known the horse, the man leading it, and the Cheshire lanes along which they are walking. The Chartley old English breed of cattle nearby died out in the 1930s and the great white bull in the woodcut was, at the time when Tunnicliffe drew it, the last of the line with the three cows which are seen in the distance. Happily the breed has been saved and can be seen in small herds in some wildlife parks.

The Edge of the Wood (see above), probably painted on Alderley Edge, clearly shows the strength and power of his watercolours I well remember, as a child, walking through the fallen leaves among the beech trunks in those steep woods, and hearing the jays calling and seeing the flash of colour as the swooped by. I saw a weasel in just such a position peering over a tree root, and the pheasants strutting among the bracken. I heard the flurry of wings as the wood pigeons flew out to the distant fields to crop their harvest, while the sun shone out across the Cheshire meadows beyond the beechwoods to the Plain.

Charles Tunnicliffe’s work will continue to influence not only my painting, but other artists down the years, and I feel sure he will be remembered in the future not only as one of our finest British painters and engravers, but as one of the greatest artists of our time.

This article is taken from the September 1982 issue of Leisure Painter and was part of a year-long series in which contemporary painters discussed the influence of another artist on their work. Look out for more features taken from this series by William P Mundy, who pays tribute to Andrew Wyeth and Pamela Derry on the works of Edward Seago.

The image on the front cover is Melancholy of Departure by Giorgio de Chirico which was on show at the Tate Gallery along with 80 other works by this artist until October 3, 1982