Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe, OBE RA RE VPSWLA (1901-1979)
One of the foremost wildlife artists of the twentieth century, Charles Tunnicliffe displayed his talents in an impressive range of formats and media, including watercolours, oils, etchings and wood engravings. Charles Tunnicliffe was born in Langley, Cheshire, on 1 December 1901, the only son of the five children of the shoemaker turned tenant farmer, William Tunnicliffe, and his wife, Margaret (née Mitchell), a farmer’s daughter. He grew up on Lane Ends Farm in nearby Sutton, and was educated at St James’s Church of England School, where teachers fostered his talent for art. He studied briefly at Macclesfield School of Art, in 1915, at the age of 14, before moving to Manchester School of Art, in the same year. In 1921, he won a Royal Exhibition Scholarship to the Royal College of Art (1921-25); there he met Malcolm Salaman, who helped him launch his career as a printmaker. He would be elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1929, and full member in 1934.
For four years, from 1925 to 1928, he taught design and poster work as a part-time member of staff at Woolwich Polytechnic, while living at Waltham Green.
In 1928, Tunnicliffe returned to Cheshire and settled at 34 Nicholson Avenue, Macclesfield. In the following year, he married Belfast-born Winifred Wonnacott, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art, in Whalley Range Methodist Church, Manchester. Becoming a freelance artist, he produced commercial work for firms involved in farming, while also painting and printmaking. From this time, he began to make a highly accurate record of birds of Britain, and to keep meticulous sketchbooks.
In 1932, Tunnicliffe made his name with wood engravings to Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, and so ensured that he would receive many, and regular, commissions for illustrations. In fact he became so popular that he made an increasing use of scraperboard as a convenient substitute for wood. Through the 1930s, he fully established himself as an artist, exhibiting engravings at the Royal Academy (annually from 1928 to 1970) and holding his first solo show, at the Greatorex Galleries in London (1938). During the Second World War, he also began to write his own books, publishing My Country Book (1942) and Bird Portraiture (1945), while teaching art at Manchester Grammar School. In 1944, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy.
Following the war, the Tunnicliffes settled at Shorelands, a house on the Caefni Estuary at Malltraeth, near Bodorgan, Anglesey, and remained there for the rest of their lives. The great inspiration that Tunnicliffe received from that particular environment was expressed, in 1952, in his most famous book, Shorelands Summer Diary. In his later years, he received a number of honours: he was elected a Royal Academician and a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (both 1954); he was made Vice-President of the Society of Wildlife Artists (1968); he was awarded the gold medal of the RSPB (1975); and he received an OBE (1978). He died at his home on 7 February 1979, Winifred having died a decade before.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Manchester Art Gallery and West Park Museum (Macclesfield); and The National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and Oriel Ynys Môn (Llangefni, Anglesey). Further reading Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser, Charles Tunnicliffe. Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2017; Ian Niall, Portrait of a Country Artist: Charles Tunnicliffe, RA, 1901-1979, London: Gollancz, 1983; Kyffin Williams, rev, ‘Tunnicliffe, Charles Frederick (1901-1979)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 55, pages 550-551