Up close and natural in Suffolk

20 February 2008

THE SUFFOLK countryside has come to the West End of London in the form an exhibition by a remarkable wildlife painter, writes Paul Handley.

Vanishing world: Sea Wormwood (2007) by Lil Tudor-Craig

Vanishing world: Sea Wormwood (2007) by Lil Tudor-Craig

In the Francis Kyle Gallery, off Regent Street, is a collection of 18 works by Lil Tudor-Craig, which show the artist’s wide-ranging knowledge of plant and animal life. During the 1990s, she specialised in biological surveying and gained an Advanced National Certificate in Wildlife Conservation. She has also worked on plant surveys for the National Rivers Authority.

Lil Tudor-Craig began the present series in 2000. The reason for the length of time it has taken to bring this exhibition to fruition is her technique. She works in egg tempera, pigment mixed with egg yolk, which allows for finely detailed work, but not speed, since the paint can be prepared only in small quantities. She applies this to gesso on birch-plywood panels.

The works show wildlife — birds or butterflies — with plants that are their natural habitat. The plants are at the same time accurate and impressionistic, creating a sense of depth of focus.

There is nothing impressionistic about the birds and butterflies, however. The most striking aspect of Lil Tudor-Craig’s work is the astonishing detail given to the smallest creatures. The paintings can be enjoyed from across the room, but the Ringlet butterflies in Dandelions (2004), for example, do not give up the secret that they have been painted even a nose-distance from the surface. The artist says she occasionally uses a magnifying glass to check her work, but not during its creation.

Here, then, is the work of a miniaturist set in a larger frame (the paintings are generally two feet by one-and-a-half), thus giving a strong sense of the East Anglian landscape — and presenting the artist with the problem of composition. (She solves this by dangling cut-outs of the birds and butterflies over the background until she is satisfied with their arrangement.)

One of the most striking in this respect is Elm Ladders (2004) depicting a charm of goldfinches. And she often uses a tiny dot of red to catch the eye — a ladybird, a maidenfly, a Red Admiral.

The good news is that the work seems to be improving. My favourite piece was the last to be completed, Sea Wormwood (2007) featuring the Essex Emerald moth, which is now thought to be extinct. The composition of the sharply focused moths and the blurred foliage will be hard to better.

At Francis Kyle Gallery, 9 Maddox Street, London W1, until 13 March. Phone 020 7499 6870.


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