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Country Matters: Captured in full flight by T K

Duff Hart-Davis
Friday 03 July 1992 23:02 BST

NEVER seen a woodcock 3ft tall? In that case, proceed at once to the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, where enormous paintings run high across one wall of the main gallery. Six hardboard panels, each 8ft wide by 4ft tall, are lined up end to end, depicting British birds with extraordinary vigour and clarity. Apart from the woodcock, there is a nightjar the size of a fighter plane, a curlew, a jackdaw, an owl and many others, each demonstrating some facet of avian behaviour.

The panels are the work of R B Talbot Kelly, long-time art master at Rugby school and distinguished bird artist, who died in 1971. They were painted just after the Second World War and designed to run as a kind of frieze round the new bird room laid out by the artist's friend Hugh Cott, then the museum's curator.

In their original setting the panels were mounted above display cabinets, three on each side of a square room. Because they were so high off the floor - their lower edges about 9ft up - they were tilted inwards and downwards like outsized coving, so that visitors could study them more easily. They remained in position until 1965, but then, when the old museum was demolished, they were put into store and have not been on show for 27 years.

The fact that they have re- emerged is a result of the initiative taken by Andrew Haslen and Graham Barker, proprietors of the Wildlife Art Gallery at Lavenham in Suffolk, who last year began collecting pictures for a major Talbot Kelly exhibition. Their research led them to the Zoological Museum, and at their behest the director, Ken Joysey, agreed to bring the panels out of storage.

It was feared that they might have deteriorated over the years, and that acid from the hardboard might have come through the paint; but they proved to be in excellent condition, and after cleaning by a team from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, they look pristine. Because in their new setting there is only room for six to be exhibited at a time, half will be shown for a couple of years, and then the remaining six will take their places.

The panels can already be seen by anyone visiting the museum, but they will serve as a splendid backcloth for the exhibition of about 60 individual pictures that opens on 21 July as part of the Cambridge Festival and runs for 10 days before moving on to other galleries.

The exercise will certainly revive interest in Talbot Kelly, both as an artist and as a person, for he had a most varied career.

He himself was at school at Rugby, but then in 1915, when he was still 18, was swept up into the horrors of the First World War. Blown up and gassed on the Western Front in France, he was invalided home, winner of a Military Cross; but he stayed on in the Army and served in India until 1929, when a severe illness forced him to return to England.

As art master at Rugby he quickly established a reputation as an exceptional teacher, but in 1939 he was again called up, this time to serve as chief instructor in the School of Camouflage established in Farnham Castle. At the same time his friend Hugh Cott was drafted to teach techniques of camouflage in the Middle East.

The subject fascinated both men. Cott wrote a substantial book about natural camouflage in birds and animals, published in 1940, and Talbot Kelly profited from the flying that he had done in the early days of the Royal Air Force: he had seen for himself how visible armies and their installations were from the air, and now he devised methods of concealing them.

After the war, T K (as he became known) returned to Rugby and taught there until he retired; but when Cott was setting up his bird room at the museum in Cambridge, he commissioned the artist to paint the panels. At the same time, Cott put in hand the construction of four large dioramas of bird life. Whether T K made these, or had a hand in them, is no longer certain; but it seems probable that he did, since he was a compulsive model-maker, forever twisting pieces of paper into perfectly shaped birds.

The one surviving diorama depicts a stretch of shore on the Isle of Man in marvellous detail. Tiny birds made of papier mache - gulls, oystercatchers, guillemots and so on - are going about their business; guano plasters the rocks; castaway bottles, a broken tea chest and the remains of fence posts holding barbed wire lie in the sand; even limpets and wormcasts are rendered in perfect scale.

In the immediate post-war years, when no money was available for field studies, Cott would use this 20ft diorama to teach, as if he were actually standing on the seashore. He could hold forth for three-quarters of an hour on subjects such as threat display, parental care and interaction between species, such was the wealth of informative detail contained in the model.

The Talbot Kelly revival could not be launched in a more apt setting, for the museum is packed with amazing numbers of stuffed birds. Only a small selection is exhibited: tens of thousands more are kept in storerooms, where, by arrangement, visitors from all over the world may study them. The collection contains more than 600 'type specimens' - original specimens on which the present description of the species is based.

It gives one a strange feeling to handle a kingfisher, labelled as 'before taxidermist bestowed on it some kind of immortality. Sadder, yet even more fascinating, is the skeleton of a dodo, recovered from the sands of Mauritius in 1868. When I asked Dr Joysey why this hefty ground pigeon had become extinct, he replied simply, 'People ate it.'

According to Talbot Kelly's son Giles, the artist was a meticulously tidy man, and talked in finished, perfectly formed sentences. Some of this precision is visible in his pictures, but they are not - thank goodness - by any means literal representations of birds. Rather, they catch character and shape with exceptional boldness.

In observations from his own book Birdlife and the Painter (1955), T K wrote: 'Both Chinaman and Egyptian drew from memory, and I believe that is the secret recipe for preserving liveliness,' and again: 'What should the artist do - be accurate to bird anatomy, or true to the impression? Personally I would still choose the latter - it seems the only honest course for any painter to pursue.'

T K certainly followed his instincts when he painted the panels. His son, who watched him at work on them, remembers his amazing 'boldness and dash' as he tackled pictures on a scale he had never attempted before, and the fearless certainty with which he proceeded, never sketching in outlines, but slapping paint straight on to the boards.

The result is an arresting spontaneity. These king-sized images have not dated in the least since they were painted almost 50 years ago, and the odds are that in another 50 they will look just as good.

The exhibition will be at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, from 21 July to 2 August; the Nature in Art Gallery, Sandhurst, Gloucester, from 8 September to 4 October; the Wildlife Art Gallery, Lavenham, Suffolk, from 11 October to 3 November; and Rugby School, from 6 to 8 November.

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