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The official opening date is this coming weekend but the exhibition is now more or less in place. Here is a little background to the selection of just a handful of objects that we chose to use.

In the course of planning this exhibition, my co-curator Neil Cocks and I decided it would be useful to undertake a brief review of some of the hunting-related content housed at MERL such that we could select suitable items for display. This process threw up some interesting gaps in the holdings of this (ordinarily very comprehensive) rural collection and led to the discovery of some rather unexpected connections.

We were surprised to learn, for example, that the Museum had no hunting pinks (or pinques) in its possession, this being the type of red coat traditionally worn by many in the hunting fraternity. Luckily, this did not prove a major stumbling block as I knew that my parents had in their possession a coat of this kind that was made in the nineteenth century for my Great Great Great Grandfather Charles Garfit and, as such, I decided to borrow this item for the exhibition. Thanks to Tim and Jane Douglas (a.k.a. mum and dad) for the generous loan of this coat.

Hunting pinks made for Charles Garfit

The red coat made in circa 1832 for MERL curator Ollie Douglas’ ancestor Charles Garfit.

Some months prior to this I had already managed to secure a hunting whip for the collection, which I purchased at auction as part of the Museum’s ongoing project Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures. As I waited to bid for this item I chatted at length to Mary Riall, Chief Executive of Ufton Court Educational Trust, who was there seeking artefacts for use in hands-on learning contexts. She revealed her own familial connections to hunting and the fact that, much like my parents, she too had some unused hunting paraphernalia at home. Again, this connection proved rather timely and Mary has kindly lent some boots and a riding cap for use in the exhibition. I would like to also extend my thanks to her for agreeing to this loan.

Hunting whip acquired at auction through Collecting Cultures funding

This hunting whip was acquired at an auction in Reading through Collecting Cultures funding (MERL 2011/7).

Just before Neil and I met to look over the MERL objects and to examine the coat that I had borrowed from my parents I spent some time looking at each item more carefully and reading through the related documentation. Prior to this moment I knew very little about the branch of my family to which the pinks were connected. I was therefore surprised and pleased to learn that the first owner of this coat had himself been based at Tabley House, Cheshire, a large property situated in the very county where Charles Tunnicliffe himself was to be born decades later. Ideal I thought, a Cheshire hunting artefact to help elucidate and interpret an image of a huntsman that itself almost certainly harked back to the artist’s own Cheshire roots.

Label found in the box in whcih the hunting coat had long been stored.

This handwritten label was in the box in which the hunting coat had long been stored. It revealed the provenance of the artefact, which had previously been unknown to me.

However, this was not the end of the surprises that I had in store. As I proceeded to revisit and re-examine the hunting whip, then still quite recently purchased, I was amazed to discover that the silver ferrule on this stylised accessory was inscribed as follows:

‘J. L–W // Tabley House // Cheshire // 1928’

In a remarkable coincidence I had purchased an object for inclusion in the MERL collection that was linked by its own object biography to a house that had earlier connections to my own familial heritage. Neil and I agreed that the Cheshire connections alone were sufficient to justify incorporating these intriguing objects and that the link between them, which was also centred on the importance of  ‘place’ in interpreting material culture, simply served to enhance the valuable part they could play in the exhibition. Plus, of course, the hunting pinks looked visually striking!

The importance of A Sense of Place in understanding the history of these objects, as well as the impetus and inspiration behind Tunnicliffe’s huntsman image, is clear. This area oif exploration is the subject of another project currently underway at the Museum, and about which my colleagues and I have also been blogging. If you are interested then why not check out this ongoing discussion or pay a visit to the exhibition and take a look at the whip and jacket on display.

The engraved ferrule on the hunting whip.

The engraved ferrule on the hunting whip, which reveals a link to Tabley House, Cheshire.

Objects on display in the exhibition, including the red coat.

Objects on display in the exhibition, including the red coat, as used to provide an artefactual understanding of the huntsman image.

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We originally hoped to incorporate some animated content and film into the exhibition, which for various practical reasons was not possible. As such, I thought I’d expand on some of these ideas and provide links to some interesting material here instead.

The arrival of photography in the nineteenth century led to realistic depictions of animal movement. The most famous example of this transition came in the form of work by visual pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). He used the camera to take different series of single frame stills that represented sequences of animals and people in motion. These images revealed how things actually moved. The stills he took have been re-animated by modern scholars.

Eadweard Muybridge's animated horse galloping

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (died 1904), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion).

Despite these significant advances, Charles Tunnicliffe clearly opted to study specimens directly and to sketch from life. These observations—especially of birds—shaped his own ability to portray the animal world. The huntsman illustration at the heart of the exhibition also captured motion in its own way, operating much like a single frame from an animated film.

Although unconnected in life, Tunnicliffe actually had much in common with Walt Disney (1901-1966). Born just days apart at the very beginning of 1901, they both worked as commercial illustrators, later producing popular art for children and adults alike. Whilst the former sought to entertain and the latter to educate, their work shared a degree of captivation with animal movement.

Just as Tunnicliffe explored hunting through ‘Tarka the Otter’ and his illustrative work for Ladybird, visual and animated representations of hunting also featured in several Disney productions, first appearing in the 1938 cartoon The Fox Hunt.

The most successful hunting sequence of Disney’s lifetime and career was probably the blend of live action and animation in Mary Poppins. Based on the children’s books by Pamela Lyndon Travers, this film hit the screens in 1964, the heyday of Ladybird.

Far from offering a neutral depiction of fox hunting, Disney’s satirical and humourous sequences portrayed it as something to be ridiculed and something for the British upper classes. Nevertheless, in their own way these sequences helped to add to the sense that it was somehow quintessentially English and inherently part of the landscape and rural life in question.

As well as delving into ideas of animation and how animal movement was captured by Tunnicliffe and his contemporaries, we briefly explored another bit of film, this time of a more biographical nature. Tunnicliffe himself seems to have been the subject of a 1981 BBC Wales television documentary called True to Nature. We have yet to track down a copy of this documentary. If anyone remembers it we’d love to hear from you.

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From 6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013 an exhibition at the Museum of English Rural Life presents a range of different responses to a single illustration of rural life. It focuses on a small watercolour by the artist Charles F. Tunnicliffe.

The Huntsman

'The huntsman, on his dappled grey..' by Charles Tunnicliffe (Image © Ladybird Books Ltd)

This was one of many artworks created by him for Ladybird children’s books. The painting featured in What to Look For in Autumn, published in 1960. This was part of a four-book series printed between 1959 and 1961. It was written by the biologist Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson and charted seasonal change in the countryside.

The original Ladybird artwork is held alongside the collections of the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading. This juxtaposition inspired us to invite specialists to examine a countryside image. Their responses form the core of the exhibition and together offer different answers to the question of What to Look For. They reveal the diverse stories that one illustration can tell.

Here we intend to ask how you might choose to look at this image and read the accompanying text? Are you interested in the artist, the illustration or other artistic responses? Perhaps the written word is more important. Maybe histories of science, of childhood or of hunting are more inspiring to you. What of the design of the book, its role in reading and learning, and how it teaches us to see and think about the world? As the exhibition progresses we hope that you will share your responses and join the conversation here.

What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning

6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013

Dr Ollie Douglas (Museum of English Rural Life) and Dr Neil Cocks (Department of English Language and Literature)

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