Celebrating Wildlife in Art

Logo: The Society of Wildlife Artists

By John Foker, SWLA Secretary and SWLA Newsletter Editor 

An abstract painting of geese
‘Barnacle geese, Mandø, Denmark’ by John Foker

On a dull and drizzly morning in May 2022, I was sitting at the edge of a single-track road on Mandø, a small island in the Danish Wadden Sea. Through a telescope, I could see a large group of barnacle geese, with a sprinkling of brent geese for company. The birds were feeding on a vast area of saltmarsh and I was drawing them, using charcoal and pastels; trying to capture the to and fro movement of the birds and configure their striking tonal markings against the marshy greens and fresh spring flowers.

Nearby, two other artists, Brin Edwards and Ben Woodhams, were doing something similar; observing, drawing and getting wet too. Further afield other members of our group were responding to their own wildlife encounters.

Back on our bit of the marsh, the sudden appearance of a white-tailed eagle sent the feeding geese into a panic. The sky was now filled with a blur of wings and anxious yelps where only moments before the scene was one of calmness and serenity. How quickly things change!

Man sitting and painting next to a tent
Ben Woodhams SWLA - prepared for all sorts of weather (Johnnie Foker)

Our group comprised members of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). We had been invited to participate in the Wadden Sea Project by the Danish Wadden Sea National Park. The Wadden Sea area spans the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark and is the world’s largest tidal-flats system. Due to its importance for the millions of migrating birds that pass along its shores, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This project was made up of two residencies in the Danish Wadden Sea region which has resulted in travelling exhibitions of the artworks produced and a book: ‘Haunted by the Last Tide’. The exhibitions and the book celebrate the wildlife and history of a complex landscape where a balance is needed to maintain wildlife habitats while supporting those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

Other projects collaborating with NGOs in recent years have included the Turkish Sweet Gum Project 2016, the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project (RSPB) 2014 and the British Trust for Ornithology Flightlines Project which looked into the challenges faced by migrating birds and their alarming population decline.

But taking part in projects is just one aspect of the Society of Wildlife Artists. So, what else does the SWLA do?

A sculpture of boxing hares made of scrap metal
‘Lockdown Hares’ by Harriet Mead. Harriet is the current and longest serving SWLA President

The SWLA is a registered charity whose aim is to generate an appreciation of and delight in the natural world through all forms representing the world’s wildlife.

Part of the role as a charity is to offer a bursary scheme which is set up to encourage artists wishing to develop their knowledge and skills in wildlife art. There are two different categories of award available; ‘The Natural Eye Bursary’ and the ‘John Busby Seabird Drawing Bursary’. The bursaries for successful applicants can go towards travel, education or the cost of materials. All details can be found on the SWLA website

One of the defining events for the SWLA is the Natural Eye exhibition that takes place annually at the prestigious Mall Galleries in London. This year the Society is celebrating its 60th anniversary and the show is on from Thursday 2nd – Saturday 11th November.

The Natural Eye is an open exhibition and this year we received a record number of submissions from non-members. Around one hundred of these were selected by committee and will be shown alongside approximately 350 artworks by member artists. There is no dominant style or way of working. SWLA artists approach their subjects with a variety of techniques as befits a world of such wildlife diversity. Sculpture, paintings, prints, drawings and even an animation will be displayed in what is considered by many to be the foremost event in the British wildlife art calendar.

A painting of two blue herons standing amongst reeds
‘Resting Herons’ by Founder member and past SWLA President Robert Gillmor

This year will be an occasion to celebrate 60 years of wildlife art while reflecting on the first SWLA exhibition which was held in London 1964. We shall also take time to remember so many wonderful artists; Robert Gillmor, Eric Ennion, Peter Scott, Eileen Soper, Priscilla Barrett, Keith Shackleton, John Busby, and John Paige to name just a few. There will also be a display of unframed work from the Wadden Sea Project in the ‘Out of the Frame’ room which is dedicated to displaying project and bursary work each year.

These days, the SWLA encompasses conservation projects, books, studio visits, printing workshops, satellite shows away from London, and our annual stand at the Birdfair – all these perhaps not envisaged by our founder members in 1964.

In the run up to our 60th anniversary the SWLA held an informal survey of artist members, to help gauge thoughts as we reach another milestone in our history. The common thread was the strong sense of community, friendship, inspiration and admiration between fellow artists and how important the SWLA had been in helping many of those artists throughout their careers. With such a range of artistic approaches, its generous community and shared core values all focussed on personal encounters with the natural world, the Society looks set to continue to inspire for many years to come.

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Posted On: 17/10/2023

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