Charlie Tunnicliffe was born in 1901 and brought up on a small farm in Cheshire. A big, burly man with sandy-red hair, and one of the hardest workers imaginable, he might have spent his life toiling in the fields had he not been endowed with an extraordinary artistic gift. From his earliest years he could draw anything, and at 19 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London.
During the Twenties he made his name as an etcher and engraver. In 1927, when Henry Williamson published his classic Tarka the Otter, Tunnicliffe was so taken with the story that he offered to illustrate it, and a later edition appeared embellished with his wood engravings.
He collaborated with Williamson on several other books, including Salar the Salmon, and gradually established himself as a leading wildlife illustrator, an all-rounder able to portray not only birds but animals and landscapes as well.
During the Second World War he taught art at Manchester Grammar School, but he hated life in the city. In 1947 he escaped to Anglesey, where he and his wife, Winnie, bought a house, which they called Shorelands, within a few yards of the sea at the head of Malltraeth Sands, looking across to the wild mountains of Snowdonia. (She, a skilled wood-turner, made some of the furniture.) There he remained happily for the rest of his life, observing, sketching and painting the sea-birds on his doorstep: sometimes at low tide he would slither out horizontally across the mud-flats, clad only in his bathing pants, to approach his subjects more closely.
His arrival in Anglesey led directly to the most famous of his books, Shorelands Summer Diary, published by Collins in 1952. The delight and excitement that he found in his new surroundings shone out from every page of this record of a summer's bird-watching, and the book was beautifully produced, with etched colour plates.
Today it has become a collectors' item. Copies change hands, if at all, for up to pounds 200 apiece. Yet when it appeared it was a failure, even though critics praised it. Collins brought it out at pounds 2, then a high price; few copies were sold, and the surplus stock was consigned to the National Book Sale (the standard forum for shifting remainders) at 7s 6d (37 1/2 p) a copy.
Probably the book was too extravagantly produced and too expensive for the market of the day, but Tunnicliffe was mortified by its failure and never published with Collins again. What he alone knew was that he had been planning a sequel. The summer diary, running from April to September, was only the first half of his journal; the second half, which recorded the rest of the year, was already in being, with numerous sketches squeezed into the margins of the hand-written sheets. But when Collins told him that another book could not contain any colour, he quietly dropped the idea.
Industrious as ever, he continued to live and work on Anglesey, acquiring a formidable reputation. Every year he would send six watercolours for hanging at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition in London, and every year the paintings would be sold on the night before the show opened, for pounds 180 apiece. (Today such works fetch between pounds 6,000 and pounds 7,000.)
In 1978 the publisher David Burnett, who had long admired his work, went up to visit him at Shorelands. By then Winnie had died, and Tunnicliffe was being looked after by his devoted sister, Dolly. According to Burnett, he was a 'real peasant', living almost exclusively on bacon and eggs and digestive biscuits. Alas, his eyesight had started to deteriorate, and his birds - always so immaculate-
ly presented - began to be
Burnett persuaded Tunnicliffe to let him take away four sketchbooks that he had found in the studio. The artist claimed they were of no value, but in this he was entirely wrong: skilfully put together, and published as A Sketchbook of Birds in 1979, they proved an immense success.
Sad to relate, Tunnicliffe did not live to enjoy it. He saw proofs of the book and its dust- jacket, but died before it came out. The Sketchbook sold 35,000 copies through the retail trade, 85,000 through a book club and 25,000 in America.
In negotiating the contract, Burnett had offered an advance of pounds 3,000, half to be paid on signature and half on publication. The artist, however, had declined these terms, and asked instead if he could be paid pounds 300 a month for a year. Burnett agreed, but was upset to think that the poor old fellow had laboured all his life without adequate reward - only to discover, on his death, that he had pounds 87,000 in his current account alone.
Besides his money, Tunnicliffe left behind a great mass of artwork, and no specific instructions in his will as to what should be done with it. In the event it was bought by Anglesey Borough Council, which has housed it in a new gallery at Llangefni, in the centre of the island. Today one section of the gallery is a replica of the artist's studio, furnished with his table, chair and working materials, arranged so realistically as to give visitors the impression that he has just gone out and will reappear at any moment.
Dolly, the surviving sister, also passed some material to David Burnett, who was helping the author Ian Niall to prepare a biography. Among the papers was a bird-watching journal, written in blue ink on buff paper. Thinking it was a rough draft of the summer diary, Burnett passed it to another distinguished bird artist, Robert Gillmor.
He too glanced at it, but was so busy with other projects that for 10 years, from 1981 to 1991, he gave it no serious consideration. Then, with a start, he noticed that the date at the beginning of one entry fell outside the months which he knew by heart from the published work. Realising that he was probably the first person to read the material in 40 years, he found the loose, jumbled pages 'suddenly transformed into something intensely special and exciting'.
The long-lost record, written upside-down on the back of the summer diary, ran from October to the end of March. Naturally it featured different birds, for the summer residents had gone and their places had been taken by migrant geese, duck and swans.
Apart from anything else, the diary expressed Tunnicliffe's hatred of wildfowlers - from whom he would nevertheless sometimes cadge the odd corpse so that he could draw it.
By means of painstaking research in the archive at Llangefni, Gillmor identified several hundred relevant sketches and matched them to the dates scribbled at the start of each entry. Many were in their raw state - the field sketches at which Tunnicliffe excelled - but some had been worked up in the
On Monday they will all see the light of day for the first time; and so, like the phoenix, the red- and-gold bird supposed in Egyptian legend to rise from the ashes, Tunnicliffe's glorious talent will live again.
'Shorelands Winter Diary' is published by Robinson at pounds 16.95.Reuse content