Crawhall painted birds of all varieties, from pigeons and magpies to pheasants and Chinese geese. In general he preferred to depict them in their natural habitat, as in A Mallard Rising (c.1908, private collection), but occasionally he would paint birds in captivity. The Aviary, Clifton (1888, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow), one of Crawhall's finest works, is another rare example of a picture which features caged birds. Crawhall's sister Elspeth noted that her brother 'loved animals and would not use them for base purposes for he respected their individuality too much' (quoted in Hamilton 1990, p.123). Unlike many Victorian artists, Crawhall avoided the sentimental depiction of birds and animals, and was interested in capturing their essence in a spontaneous and often witty manner. A gifted caricaturist, he could convey a creature's individual character with a few strokes of his pen or brush. As his contemporary, John Lavery (1856-1940), remarked, 'In a few lines he could sketch an animal, making it more recognisable than the most candid camera could do - and this from memory' (Lavery, The Life of a Painter, London 1940, p.82).
Although born and brought up in Morpeth, Crawhall was a leading member of the Glasgow Boys, whose early work is strongly realist in style and subject matter. However, by the 1890s they had adopted a more decorative approach and, as Adrian Bury notes, this picture is 'more symbolical than realistic, in [that] the bird is subordinated to the design as a whole' (Bury 1958, p.119). Crawhall contrasts the vertical bars of the cage with the horizontals of the perch, the feeding dish and the dove itself, which appears hunched up and subdued. At the same time he softens the grid-like design through the varied colours and tones and the half-dry brush effect. The artist has clearly worked rapidly, drawing freehand lines with a casual deftness. From an early date Crawhall specialised in watercolours and he most often painted in gouache on a linen support. In The Dove the warm Holland linen provides the background colour to the picture. The calligraphic handling and economy of line reflect Crawhall's interest in Oriental art, as do the Japanese-style blossoms outside the cage.
Adrian Bury, Joseph Crawhall, the Man and the Artist, London 1958, p.76, reproduced p.119.
Vivien Hamilton, Joseph Crawhall, Glasgow 1990, p.126.
4 December 2000