Poultry please: Down the ages the chicken has ranged from being a spiritual authority to a schoolyard joke. Iain Gale ponders the latest in bird art

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The chicken. It hardly seems the most obvious subject for a serious artist. Nevertheless, as is demonstrated in an exhibition now showing in Glasgow to celebrate the ninth European Poultry Conference, poultry and painting have long gone hand in hand.

From ancient times the cock has featured in art. As the personification of both vigilance and spiritual renewal he accompanied the Graeco-Roman deities Apollo, Mercury and Persephone. In Buddhist art he is the bird of pride and in Chinese art symbolises fame, courage and martial supremacy. In pre-revolutionary Iran the image of a regal chicken is perched on the imperial sceptre. In Christian art the cock is both annunciator and betrayer - an avian John the Baptist and the conscience of St Peter. In all his various representations he is a creature of enchantment and, even when finally secularized in the 19th-century context of the present exhibition, the cockerel retains a certain parabolical potency.

As the incarnation of rural domesticity a chicken is hard to beat. As much is shown here in Corot's Cottage at Fontainebleau. Even peripherally, in the farmyard, the cock and his family represent the classic 1850s household of proud father, wife, mistress and dutiful offspring. But poultry's predicament is loaded with hubris. We know that the proudly puffed-out chest of the strutting cock in Bosboom's barn interiors will tomorrow be the roast capon of Ribault's masterpiece The Cooks.

Joseph Crawhall, whose works form the central focus of the show, says it all with two wittily juxtaposed works: the disdainful Spanish Cockerel and the self-explanatory Cold Chicken. In such situations, distanced from his traditional iconography, the chicken becomes a modern allegory of mankind's mortality; a metaphor for the human condition. The cock is the ultimate fall guy. Deceived with the illusion of farmyard empire, he must ultimately face the reality of his fate. Nevertheless, there is a nobility in the way he maintains a facade of unflappability, even in the face of the insufferable.

Nowhere is this better captured than in Crawhall's masterly illustrations to the 12th- century tale of Chanticler, the old black cock, 11 of whose 15 children are killed by the wily fox Reynard. Chanticleer and the Funeral Procession of Coppen is one of 10 works on show by Crawhall, one of the Glasgow Boys, who, while today largely neglected, in his heyday at the turn of the 20th century, was hailed as one of our greatest watercolourists.

While skilled as an illustrator, he is perhaps at his best in such set-pieces as the Chinese- inspired Spanish Cock and the Snail. Using swift, sweeping brushstrokes, often on unprimed canvas, Crawhall captures not merely the physical nature of the bird but also its character, without imbuing it with any inappropriate human characteristics. Crawhall's cocks preserve their integrity and in so doing are able to deliver the salutary lesson which has always been implicit in their depiction.

Never ask 'Why did the chicken cross the road?'. Sometimes, as in Crawhall's bloody drawing The Road Hog, he just doesn't get to the other side. It's a cock's life.

To Oct, Burrell Collection, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow (041- 357 3929)

(Photograph omitted)