A barn owl. Photo: Getty
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A hoot and a half: owls, it turns out, are hard to draw

There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals – owls – are doing the modelling.

We sat in a circle on wooden chairs. One by one, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group and explain why we had come. Finally my turn came and I felt painfully aware of 30 strangers staring at me.

“My name is Sophie. I’m a journalist. And I’m just really into owls.”

On a wooden table in the centre, a fluffy, white juvenile barn owl was greedily devouring a chick, one bloodied leg dangling from its sharp beak. A larger tawny owl tottered around nearby, swaying from side to side. Every now and then, a set of black cages on the floor emitted an angry hiss.

This was the first session of “wild life drawing”, a new series of art classes set up by Jennie Webber, a London-based artist. There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals, rather than naked people, are doing the modelling.

The sessions take place at the Proud Archivist, a self-consciously trendy east London bar, restaurant, gallery and general hipster hangout. On the evening I visited, it was advertising a Panini sticker exhibition and “pop yoga” classes for those who want to do their sun salutations to music and while watching psychedelic projections. (Count me in!)

It could not have been a better time to launch an owl drawing class. The birds had been all over the news a week earlier after the Labour Party’s press team tweeted what could have been its most popular manifesto pledge to date: that everyone should have their own owl. Labour later released a statement saying its Twitter account had been hacked and confirming that its “head-turning policy” was “no longer going to take flight” – just two of hundreds of puns circulating online that day. The media excitement at least revealed a national love for the birds.

Yet owls, it turns out, are hard to draw. Not only is it difficult to make a picture of an animal that is shaped like a large blob with two eyes look like an artistic achievement, but you can’t ask the birds to hold a five-minute pose. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets; so, to try to take in their audience, they constantly wiggled their heads from side to side, like a Bollywood dance troupe. Occasionally, one would fall off the end of the table or swoop towards a delighted sketcher.

“Look away now if you’re squeamish!” Webber said each time the owl trainers, from the Sky Bird of Prey Display Team, ripped dead chicks into bite-sized chunks with their hands before feeding them to their noisy charges. The hope had been that the owls might fall into a postprandial trance – but no such luck.

When all six birds had been returned safely to their cages, we placed our sketches on the table while Webber cooed words of encouragement. A few of the drawings were disconcertingly accomplished but she found something nice to say to everyone.

Her own work has a Victorian feel. She produces intricate etchings of wildlife and is also a taxidermist. Taxidermy, like handlebar moustaches and penny-farthings, seems to be another 19th-century trend enjoying an unexpected revival in the city’s creative East End.

The point of wild life drawing, Webber told us, isn’t just making good art. Instead, she hopes her classes will help Londoners discover a love for nature. It worked for me: I dumped my drawings in a bin outside Haggerston Station but now I’m even more obsessed with owls.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle