Marmaduke Cradock c.1660–1717
A Peacock and other Birds in a Landscape
Oil paint on canvas
761 x 632 mm
Inscribed ‘M: Cradocke’ (strengthened) bottom right on fallen column
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1991
... ; bought c.1951–2 in a Bath antique shop by Mr Maconockie; by family descent to Mr Neil Maconockie, by whom sold Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 1991 (no.55), bought by Tate.
In this painting, probably intended as an item of interior decoration to be placed above a door or chimneypiece, Marmaduke Cradock has depicted the individual birds with great accuracy and attention to detail, making them easily identifiable. Hovering in the air and on the left are domesticated rock doves (Columbia livia); below the dovecote are turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo); standing on the fallen column a peacock (Pavo cristaus); and perched on a branch in the foreground a jay (Garrulus glandarius). A predatory rodent or fox (it is difficult to determine which) can be seen stealing into the dovecote.
Cradock could well have sketched the birds from life. A watercolour sketch by him of various waterfowl in realistic attitudes (British Museum, London) seems to indicate that he did observe directly from nature. Such authenticity is common in bird paintings of this date, a reflection of the increasing interest and curiosity there was in the natural world and the scientific drive to observe and classify different species. Unlike some bird painters, for example the Hungarian-born Jacob Bogdani whose patrons were drawn mainly from court circles and whose more formal and flamboyant works are populated by colourful parrots and other exotic specimens, Cradock’s choice of birds is more humble. For the most part he concentrates on native or farmyard species, common in England at the time and easily available to sketch, whether outside London or within the capital. Caged birds, for example ducks, were available at Leadenhall Market, or song-birds (including, from at least the eighteenth century, the jay) from other bird-sellers on the London streets. According to antiquarian George Vertue, Cradock shunned the direct patronage of ‘Noblemen or Quality’, always ‘supposing they wou’d confine his genius to their fancy’, preferring instead to work ‘for persons that pay’d him p diem, or that dealt in pictures’.1 Thus, presumably, he would not have had access to private menageries which, for other bird painters, were valuable sources of exotic foreign species. This goes some way to explain his concentration on rather ordinary species and the regularity with which they recur in paintings by or attributed to him. His peacock on the other hand, which adds a dash of glamour to the scene, could have been observed in the London parks and gardens, including the royal menagerie in St James’s Gardens where the public was free to wander. Alternatively he could have drawn upon painted or printed sources (Cradock is known to have had a print collection, which in his will he bequeathed to the children of the painter Humphrey Dale), or he could have used a stuffed specimen.2 Birds mounted with their heads turned back was a common taxidermic device of the period, and this posture appears with frequency in contemporary bird paintings.3
That Cradock had either mounted specimens or kept patterns on paper in his studio for re-use in other paintings is apparent through the frequency with which birds used here return in other works. For instance, the peacock on the fallen column, but looking forward instead of back, also appears in his signed Peacocks, Doves, Turkeys, Chickens and Ducks by a Classical Ruin in a Landscape (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). The entire composition was repeated in a larger work sold in Amsterdam on 14 October 1918 (erroneously attributed to Hondecoeter), and again in a work at Hutton-in-the-Forest, and elements of it, with additions and alterations, have appeared in works on the London art market attributed to him (see Christie’s, London, 15 December 1993, no.165, and Phillips, 22 February 1994, no.44). The latter is much inferior in quality to the three known signed examples of his work (Tate T06488, that at Yale mentioned above, and Two Muscovy Ducks, a Partridge, Pheasant and a Squirrel in a Clearing, with Lane Fine Art, London, 1991) as is much of the work attributed to him. This strongly suggests that as well as painting rapidly Cradock had studio assistants who presumably took responsibility for producing many of the versions and repeats of his designs. No studio assistants or pupils are known except for the otherwise unheard of bird painter Coniers, said to have received instruction from him.4
Although individual birds have been depicted accurately, their setting has not. This inconsistency was usual with bird painters of the time, for instance Hondecoeter, Bogdani and Casteels, who grouped birds that would not normally be seen together in fanciful classical garden settings, the emphasis on visual effect and display rather than honesty to nature. Cradock’s dovecote is completely out of place, the farmyard birds far removed from their natural habitat, and the inclusion of the peacock among them incongruous. Ornamental bird pieces such as this usually served as interior decoration, placed above doors or chimney pieces in interiors. It is not known if this particular picture performed a similar function, although Cradock’s works are known to have done so. For instance, in 1739 Vertue noticed overdoors by Cradock, alongside those by Bogdani, in the bedchamber of Sir Robert Walpole’s house in Whitehall.5
The predatory animal stealthily entering the dovecote adds an element of action and drama to the picture, not usually common in ornamental bird pieces but encountered frequently in the work of Cradock’s fellow native-born bird and animal painter, Francis Barlow. Barlow was unusual not only in his accurate depiction of species, but also in relating them to their natural environments and displaying their instinctive characters, in motion – for example his Dogs and Bustard (Parham Park) where a hound holds on to the leg of a flying game bird. In this respect Cradock’s work has much in common with Barlow’s, seen more particularly in two prints (out of five known so far) after Cradock’s works produced by Joseph Sympson in 1740–3. They are farmyard scenes but the focus of the pictures, instead of simply on the birds, is on the dramatic action of kites swooping down to carry off chickens below, and the panic thus created. This picture lacks such intensity of drama, although the jay is perhaps giving an alarm call and the rock dove presumably has been sent into a flurried flight to avert danger.
The savagery of the natural world, and the reasons for it, was an issue of much contemporary philosophical debate. It was the subject, for example, of an engraving by Kip after Fromart, which appeared as an illustration to Richard Blome’s 1694 English translation of Anthony Le Grand’s An Entire Body of Philosophy, According to the Principles of … Des Cartes. An exposition of Cartesian principles, which viewed the operations of the natural world, and more particularly those of the lesser species, as instinctively mechanistic, it shows a man fleeing from a lion, sheep in terror of a wolf, chickens in fear of a kite and a dove attempting escape from a hawk, ‘All the visible effects of qualities proceeding from a Cause admired, but never known’.6 While certainly owing a great deal to the new science of observation, it is perhaps unlikely that Cradock’s work is a visual representation of the impulsive workings of God’s creatures, informed by a knowledge of natural philosophy. Neither, however, is it a detached, natural scene. As was common in Netherlandish flower paintings, or still life vanitas pieces, Cradock seems to be using the natural world as a moral commentary on human life, the predator and the danger it brings acting as a moral check to the outward harmony and worldly vanity of the scene.
It is not known who commissioned or first owned the picture. In 1994 an engraving of the composition came to light (Joseph Sympson after Cradock, 1742) which was subsequently purchased by the British Museum, to add to the four engravings by Sympson after Cradock already in its collection. The engraving gives the then owner of the picture as Samuel Williams (possibly the Samuel Williams who was Secretary of Jamaica). However, close examination revealed slight differences between it and the Tate painting, mainly in spacing and areas of shading, making it unclear whether it was the Tate version that served as the model for the engraving.