Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There are certainly "writers' writers"; I believe there are painter's painters. Tom Quinn has relentlessly high standards-- he admires Durer's hare, and the zen paintings of Samurai swordsman turned artist Musashi. He once asked me if I had seen a particular painting of a white common pigeon, saying that he sometimes thought it was the best bird portrait ever.
I hadn't, but I knew of the artist, from the hunting and natural history books of the grand Edwardian traveler and sportsman Abel Chapman, whose wonderfully illustrated volumes I collect in a small way.* Almost all his books, but especially those on Spain and Africa, were full of  lively, minimalist sketches of big game by none other than (his cousin) Joseph Crawhall.

It was only later that I learned more about him. I had picked up a copy of Writ in Sand, an obscure collection of short sketches by Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, the improbable hidalgo- Scots laird- Socialist MP and modern Don Quixote better known to friends as diverse as W H Hudson and Josef Conrad as "Don Roberto" and whom I also collect, and began reading a story called "Creeps", only to find it was a tragic but admiring portrait of the dissipated, down- but- never- out painter, still painting and still cheerful though apparently impoverished and most often drunk.  ("Whether or not he would have produced more if he had drunk less is a moot question... All that 'Creeps' did produce was perfect of its kind, and certainly no one before or after him, except the Altamiran artists, have produced anything even remotely resembling his work.")

Don Roberto saw Crawhall's art as clearly as did those Academy painters who rejected him in horror as they compared him to the dreaded new French Impressionists: "Something there was as I see art... that linked him to the art of the great draughsmen of the caves of Altamira."

"Crawhall, as they did, left out everything not essential, not as some leave out most that is essential, in their search after originality...Thus, drawing became likethinking to him, and I think just as subconsciously.  It was his speech." [Emphasis mine]

There is a surprising amount of Crawhall on the web, and I will let you search for it. For his "Altamiran" sketches, you might have to find copies of Chapman's books, but here are a few more finished paintings I find particularly wonderful; another of pigeons, a hunting meet, a greyhound that may be the best sighthound portrait I have ever seen...

* I found my copy of Savage Sudan on the porch of the women who ran our local paper back in the eighties. I told them it was worth money, but Wilma Huggett insisted that I pay her fifty cents, saying she had paid a quarter for it at a garage sale.


Anonymous said...

Apparently, I am the only one commenting at this time – sorry, Steve, hopefully everyone is taking it in or will eventually take it in. This is a fantastic post. A perfect example of why the blog is so good, an introduction to both Crawhall and Chapman. I love all of these paintings, but why is the painting of the pigeon so exceptional as a bird portrait, as I agree it is? I would love to hear Tom articulate that. It is not representationally accurate as the tail seems to be coming out from the left side of the body, the left wing is a disjointed gesture and there is a lump in the back of the bird's neck I have yet to observe in real life. Two things stand out for me: the expression of the bird, communicated in its eye and body language. To me, it's a bird being observed by someone it knows at a still tolerable distance and observing back. The bird's expression is accepting, and I have seen that expression. And second the feel of the weight, substance and roundness of the bird as conveyed in the depiction of its legs. This I think provides the foundational structure to the painting. There is also a dusty (as in pigeon dust), feathery quality to the painting which is most bird-like, particularly of kept pigeons and their unavoidably concentrated effusions. So perhaps this is a bird on the floor of a loft. I don't think this is a wild bird.


Unknown said...

What year was the greyhound painting published Steve? The pose is very reminiscent of Briton Riviere's The Empty Chair (except that one was a deerhound). On the other hand, it is certainly a very typical sighthound pose. Lovely.

Steve Bodio said...

I have been unable so far to trace the Greyhound but will keep looking.

And D, I agree-- those looked more like my crossbred homers than ferals.

Guy Boyd said...

I think the paintings of the pigeon and the gos have much in common. They are superb head studies that capture the eye and invite the viewer's imagination to complete the image. Much like a writer who supplies sufficient detail to captivate the reader, but leaves enough mystery for the reader's imagination to complete the description themselves thereby creating a more perfect word picture in the reader's mind than the writer could have.