Cradock has depicted the individual birds with great accuracy, making them easily identifiable. Hovering in the air on the far 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. Watercolour sketches by him in the British Museum, for example Studies of waterfowl (illustrated in Stainton and White 1987, p.221) are evidence that he did observe directly from nature. Such authenticity is common in bird paintings of this date, a reflection of an increasing interest and curiosity in the natural world, and a scientific drive to observe and classify different species. Unlike some bird painters, for example the Hungarian-born Jacob Bogdani (1660-1724), whose patrons were drawn from court circles and whose flamboyant works are populated by colourful parrots and exotic specimens, Cradock's choice of birds is more humble. He has concentrated on native or farmyard species common in England and easily available to sketch. The peacock, which adds a dash of glamour, could have been observed in the London parks or, alternatively, Cradock could have used a stuffed specimen (birds mounted with their heads turned back was a common taxidermic device of the period). Some of the birds, for example the peacock, reappear in other works by Cradock in exactly the same postures, indicating that he had mounted specimens or kept paper patterns in his studio to draw on for re-use. Cradock made at least three versions of this picture but this one is of particularly high quality and is one of only three known works signed by him.
The predatory animal stealthily entering the dovecote adds an element of drama to the picture not usually encountered in ornamental bird pieces but which is a frequent ingredient of the work of Cradock's fellow native-born bird and animal painter, Francis Barlow (active 1648-1704). Barlow was unusual for showing native species in their natural habitats, in motion and displaying characteristic behaviour. For example, in his Dogs and Bustard (Parham Park) a hound holds on to the leg of a flying game bird. Cradock's works are in many ways similar. An engraving by Joseph Sympson after one of them (British Museum) shows a farmyard scene with kites swooping on chickens below, with the emphasis on drama and action.
Similarly, although this work is in many ways decorative it is not simply a detached, ornamental view - the jay is giving an alarm call, while the rock dove has been sent into a flurried flight to avert danger. Cradock seems to be using the natural world as a moral commentary on human life, the dovecote's predator and the peril it brings acting as a moral check to the outward harmony and worldly vanity of the scene.
Cradock, who worked in London, apparently shunned the direct patronage of 'Noblemen or Quality', always 'supposing they wou'd confine his genius to their fancy'. He preferred instead to work for those who paid him a daily rate, or for dealers (Vertue Notebooks I, Walpole Society, vol.18, 1930, p.80). His works are known to have functioned as items of interior decoration, set into panelling above doors or chimneypieces, but the early history of this particular work is not known.
Edward Croft-Murray and Paul Hulton, Catalogue of British Drawings in the British Museum, I (16th and 17th centuries), London 1960, pp.291-2.
Lindsay Stainton and Christopher White, Drawing in England from Hilliard to Hogarth, exhibition catalogue, British Museum 1987, pp. 220-1.