Andrew Painting, 27, is an ecologist working in the Scottish highlands. He studies human/environment relations at Aberdeen University, and occasionally writes about environmental issues.
Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying‘
A few days ago I was out on the moor and I saw an exquisite little creature. A young merlin, with a single white speck of down on its head, flew onto a patch of purple heather close by. It was a perfect little killing machine. It was, I thought to myself, the apotheosis of natural beauty (though in truth, I don’t think I was so verbose at the time). I had a fancy camera with me, and I nearly took a picture, but decided against it. A photograph, I thought, could never do the creature justice.
Which begs the question: is it possible to reproduce the beauty of wildlife in art?
Imagine if I had taken a photo, and that photo had happened by some miracle to be the most beautiful photograph of a merlin ever taken. Even then, that photo would not be a beautiful merlin, only a beautiful picture of a merlin. It would be representation, rather than pure, untrammelled, natural beauty.
What if it were such a good photo that it was more beautiful than my merlin? What if my photo suggested a beauty in the creature that actually did not exist, as it were, in the wild? Imagine if my photo showed the merlin, but failed to show a rubbish heap just out of frame.
This is the often forgotten tension that lies at the heart of ‘wildlife art’. A work of art is not the same as the thing that it depicts. A photo of a merlin is not a merlin. A la Magritte, ceci n’est pas un Faucon émerillon.
While ‘wildlife art’ can often be beautiful, depictions of wildlife in art are the imposition of a human worldview of beauty on an inhumanly beautiful subject. When this imposition is not recognised as such it can have significant cultural and ecological repercussions.
Let me show you what I mean. One of the most famous ‘wildlife paintings’ around is Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, completed in 1851. You know, the one from the Glenfiddich label. A wild, enormous, noble stag stands proudly against a rugged wilderness. It is a wildly popular picture of a natural, noble, sublime scene.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with the Scottish highlands in the 1840s. They believed they had stumbled upon a rustic utopia. Far from the madding crowds of over-civilised London, they saw in the highlands a land of sublime wilderness, sparsely inhabited by clansmen they saw as noble savages, all tartan and whisky and claymores. A land where noble pursuits like stag hunting were the order of the day. In the Queen’s own words:
‘The solitude, the romance and wild loveliness of everything here [The Trossachs], the absence of hotels and beggars, the independent simple people, who all speak Gaelic here, all make beloved Scotland the proudest, finest country in the world. Then there is that beautiful heather, which you do not see elsewhere.’
They bought Balmoral in 1852, the well-to-do followed them up to Deeside, and the ‘highland lifestyle’ took off. The Queen commissioned Edwin Landseer, a personal friend who just happened to be the most popular painter of the day, to paint their experiences – to show the world the rugged, natural beauty of the Scottish highlands. And boy did he. Landseer rattled off painting after painting of hunting scenes filled with rustic ghillies, noble animals and empty, heather-clad hills. So it was that ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ caught the world’s imagination.
The thing is though, in all honesty, it is not a great picture. Look at the stag. The proportions are out. And most importantly, a brute of that size never endured a harsh highland winter. He’s a ringer. If Keats is right, and beauty is truth, then ‘The Monarch’ is ugly as sin.
It is, to say the least, a misleading picture. By the 1850s vast tracts of Scotland were recently deforested. People had been driven from the land by centuries of clan wars, occasional fits of English oppression, Jacobite rebellions and, finally, the clearances. To this day it is possible to find the ruins of homesteads and farmhouses in otherwise empty hills that were filled first with people, then sheep, then deer, and finally with grouse. The Royals had not, in fact, stumbled on a rustic utopia, nor on a natural wilderness. They had walked into a society, and a landscape, struggling to survive.
Landseer’s stag may be noble, and the empty wilderness sublime, but these qualities are merely the picturesque masquerading as the beautiful. Indeed, George Monbiot (who is far more splenetic than my constitution allows me to be) goes so far as to say of the painting that ‘there could scarcely be a greater contrast with either the squalid reality of dispossession or of the weedy, stunted deer living there today.’
Landseer, then, did not create art, and nor did he portray natural beauty. The legacy of his paintings is, at best, a mixed bag. He put too much of himself, and his culture, into his wildlife paintings. ‘The Monarch’ screams his worldview in every brushstroke.
The ecological impact of Landseer’s work reaches into the present day. Most people think of the highlands as a natural wilderness, rather than as a landscape primarily managed to facilitate the ‘highland lifestyle’ made popular by Queen Victoria all those years ago. ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
In a final, fitting twist, the painting is now owned by Diageo, which is the company that owns Glenfiddich. They own it so that they can use it for marketing purposes. As Wilde would no doubt say if he were around today, ‘life imitates marketing far more than marketing imitates life’. That is, after all, the point of marketing.
Does all this mean that depictions of wildlife in art are dishonest, or even dangerous? Of course not. ‘Wildlife art’ hangs on my walls, and my life would be infinitely poorer without it. But it is always worth remembering that ‘wildlife art’ is an expression of human creativity and never a ‘truthful’ depiction of wildlife.
Let’s return to my merlin, briefly, perched in the heather. Was she truly beautiful, or did I just think that she was? There are certainly others who would have thought of her not as beautiful, but rather as vermin. Is it the case, then, that wildlife is not inherently beautiful, but rather that we only think it is because of our own cultural prejudices? Is the natural beauty of wildlife as subjective as beauty in art?
No. Natural beauty speaks of the true nature of things. The truth of the universe is not to be found hanging in the National Museum of Scotland, courtesy of Diageo. But it can be found in the song of a blackbird sitting on an overhead wire in the forlorn suburb of a nameless town.
Note added later: On 17th November Diageo announced that it would ‘part gift’ the Monarch of the Glen to the Scottish National Gallery, which has now launched an appeal to raise four million pounds to purchase the painting. Here is a link to a pretty good article about the sale in the Financial Times (subscription)
London’s a funny place – but then, you knew that didn’t you?
Here’s a Robin in a tree in Soho – how lovely to see. The Christmas decorations in Monmouth Street had plenty of mammals on them, foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and rabbits, but there were some odd birds in the trees with the Robins.
What do you make of these? I was hoping for a long-staying Siberian Accentor but no…
If you are a poultry farmer with thousands of turkeys, or if you have a couple of hens in your garden, they need to be housed for the next month according to Defra (and the Welsh and Scottish governments too, but not Northern Ireland) to avoid encountering ‘wild birds’ carrying a new strain of bird flu (or poultry flu as we might wish to call it) H5N8.
If you read the papers you’ll pretty much get a regurgitation of the Defra press release and line (see here). It’s unspecified ‘wild birds’ that get the blame for the spread of this disease. Slightly surprisingly (to me anyway), the Daily Express seems to be covering this news better than most proper papers (see here and here).
Defra’s grasp of the biology of wild birds seems to remain at its usual abysmal level. A case in Hungary in early November where Highly Pathogenic H5N8 virus was isolated from ‘a pooled samples’ (sic) of six wild birds, 5 ‘ducks’ and a ‘seagull’, was one of the earliest cases. There are, as readers of this blog will probably know, a few dozen species of ducks which might be found in Hungary at that time of year and each of them will have come from a wide breeding area and might be travelling onward to a wide wintering area with very different possibilities of arriving anywhere near the UK. There are a few gull species too! Vets and virologists are highly specific about which strain of virus they are dealing with (I’m glad to say) but incredibly vague about the dead duck that someone had in their hands from which they isolated the virus. It’s the usual shocking treatment of the biology of an infectious disease whose biological details of transmission are important in understanding and dealing with the issue. It comes to something that whenever Defra writes or talks about wildlife they sound as though they don’t have a clue. It inspires a massive lack of confidence in their competence.
There are now upwards of 150 recent cases of wild birds being found dead and apparently carrying the relevant virus. The infected species include Tufted Duck and Pochard, Mute Swans, ‘various gulls’, ‘grebes’, Coots, Curlews and ‘some raptor species’. It’s an interesting list. The chances of a Tufted Duck directly transmitting a virus to a domestic, even a free-range, turkey seem rather low. But I’m not saying that wild birds aren’t important vectors of H5N8, it’s just that we always go through this same story of it being wild birds, with poor, in fact awful, data on the wild birds concerned, and very little emphasis being given to movements of live and dead domestic birds. Some of us will remember the case of the lorry loads of partially processed turkey meat that were arriving at a Bernard Matthews farm in a previous serious UK outbreak of H5N1 bird flu; wild birds were blamed by Defra for that outbreak until the truth emerged rather belatedly (see Fighting for Birds pp238-43).
It is interesting that many of the commercial outbreaks seem to be from large premises with thousands of birds and scattered across a wide range of countries including Austria, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
One of the more interesting cases appears to be that closest to the UK, in the Pas de Calais, where ‘wild ducks’ were found to have the virus. But these ‘wild ducks’ were being used by wildfowlers as calling birds to attract wild birds into range, and so were captive ‘wild birds’ or as some might say, including the ducks themselves, captive birds. And indeed captive birds which were moved from a domestic situation to the wild and back again deliberately many times. In a fantastic Defra example of Newspeak this case is described as follows: ‘In France (Pas de Calais region and the closest case to the UK), captive decoy ducks tested positive. These birds are considered wild birds as they are sedentary and not associated with any commercial poultry’.
Janice writes: I am a bookseller by trade, currently manager of a branch of Waterstones. My passion for books is more than matched by my passion for wildlife and wild places.
It’s a year since the Government imposed a small charge on single use plastic bags and in my experience on the retail front line, older men have the biggest problem with it. Women tend to be the most organised in bringing bags with them, younger men like to balance towers of shopping like a circus act, kids don’t consider 5 pence to be worth thinking about. But every day I encounter someone, usually an above middle aged man, who thinks the charge is a stealth tax, a conspiracy between retailers and the government to squeeze money out of the oppressed, an injustice on a national scale.
Today’s objector is particularly loud and offensively offended, jabbing the air with an accusing finger and spraying the counter with self-righteous spittle. Of course he can afford five pence. In fact, he is unlikely to bother to reach down and pick such a coin off the street should he walk past one. It’s an insignificant amount.
While he pontificates, a lazy wasp of late summer mistakes our bookshop doorway for the bakery next door and cruises in past the rows of best sellers. Past the volumes of fact and fiction, enlightenment and escapism, education and ephemera. It begins to circle the ranting man’s head and I briefly fantasise that it will fly down his throat and sting him on the tonsil but stop myself. After all, that’s no way for a wasp to die.
Luckily a queue is forming and I have to blank Mr Angry and move on, this time serving a sympathetic woman with her own fabric bag and cheery smile.
It is now over a year since the bag charge was imposed in England, following the good example already set by Wales. In many ways it has already been fantastically successful, reducing the number of single usage carrier bags given out by large retailers by many millions. The bag charges have gone to charity and have amassed significant amounts. Aldi embarked on a three year partnership with the RSPB aiming to be worth £2 million. Already, in the first year, the supermarket has donated more than three quarters of a million to the Connecting Children with Nature project.
The message is still muddied though and clearly has not convinced everyone. For every 5p donated to the RSPB, another plastic bag has entered the environment and may potentially end up in the stomach of a leatherback turtle, to lethal effect. (The Sea Life Centres are great at hitting home the devastating effects of plastic in our oceans). For every smiling lady with a hessian bag there is a shrugging teenager, more than willing to add a few invisible pence to a contactless payment rather than actually come prepared to shop with bag in hand.
The hostile attitude of many older shoppers confuses me because I clearly remember my own parents having a stash of bags under the stairs which they took with them on their weekly shopping trip. Perhaps that is the difference … shopping involved a weekly trip in those days, now it can be done on the hoof on any day of the week and at almost any hour of the day. It’s hard to have bag in hand for impulse purchases.
There is also an urban myth that retailers can’t impose the bag charge if their logo is on the bag. Incorrect. On the odd occasion a customer has turned our bag inside out as a protest against paying 5p to advertise for us, hilarious as our giant W logo is exactly the same inside out and back to front!
Very rarely does anyone acknowledge the actual purpose of the bag charge, to encourage people to shun the single use plastic bag and re-use bags for life, thus massively reducing the amount of plastic heading for landfill or strewn around the countryside and coast. Are we really too lazy and selfish to make such a small effort to achieve such good?
Well no, many millions of us have embraced or at least accepted the measures. But it would be really helpful if the benefits of reducing plastic bag usage could be trumpeted abroad at every opportunity in every type of media. Just so that those of us manning checkouts can ask the question, ‘do you need a bag?’, without flinching.
Thank you to all who submitted entries for this blog’s first writing competition – there were some really good entries and five very good winners:
Wildlife and Politics Kerri ni Dochartaigh
Invertebrates Sue Croxford
Wildlife and the Arts Ross Hunter
International Wildlife Hugh Webster
Under-18 category Hazel Peters
But there were some excellent other entries and I’ve contacted some of them and will be featuring a few other essays as Guest Blogs over the next few weeks – I’m sure you will enjoy them too. The first two will appear on Thursday and Friday mornings.
And ‘thank you’ to the two judges, Sarah Vernon-Hunt from Thames and Hudson and Michael McCarthy (author and former environment editor of the former Independent newspaper) who gave up their time and brain power to read and rank the entries. We’ll be meeting up later this week for a celebratory meal and re-running our views on your writing, no doubt.
Like throwing any party, it was difficult to know whether anyone would come, and what the quality of submissions would be. But I shouldn’t have worried as you have produced some really interesting and well-written pieces. So, I’ll plan to do it again next year, but this time I’ll give you a bit more time for thinking about it.