Startled Bird is one of a series of sculptures of animals that were Meadows’s principal work in the 1950s. His interest in this genre followed a commission in 1954 from the Hertfordshire Director of Education to create a sculpture for a new school to be built in London Colney, near St Albans. The result was a cockerel which, although nearly double life size, was startlingly naturalistic. The success of the venture led to Meadows’ exploration of the formal possibilities of sculpture based on animals. In the following years sculptures of birds (usually cockerels) and crabs dominated his output. Alan Bowness explained that it was ‘not so much that he was interested in animals for their own sakes, but as vehicles for the human figure. These animal sculptures carry an emotional charge that is immediately translatable into human terms’ (Bowness, p.12). Startled Bird stands upright with its wings outstretched and neck extended. Its pose reveals its own fear while, at the same time, it threatens any predators.
At the British Pavilion in the 1952 Venice Biennale Meadows exhibited three bronze sculptures; one cock, 1951, and two crabs, 1951-2. The critic Herbert Read (1893-1968) proposed in the catalogue that his works were characterised by a ‘baroque fantasy; from an animal form, a cock or a crab, he will elaborate a vortex in which the animal’s virtue is caught as in a snare’ (Read, unpaginated). In his catalogue introduction Read famously described the sculptures by Meadows and his contemporaries as ‘excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear’ (Read, unpaginated). Meadows was able to achieve this sense of tension in his sculpture partly as a result of the technique he had learnt from Anne Severs, a student at the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court. She introduced him to the process whereby a sculpture was roughed out in plaster on an armature and, when this had dried, the final form was modelled in further plaster which was wet enough to be malleable but dry enough to adhere. When tacky the plaster could be worked with a knife and with time could be carved. This resulted in the distinctive highly textured surfaces of much of Meadows’s work.
Animals, birds, insects and marine creatures were frequently the subject matter of sculptures by Meadows’ contemporaries, including John Hoskin (1921-90), Lynn Chadwick (born 1912), Eduardo Paolozzi (born 1924) and William Turnbull (born 1922). Elisabeth Frink (1930-93), who was taught by Meadows at the Chelsea School of Art while she was a student there between 1949 and 1953, also began to produce sculptures of crows and ravens in the early 1950s. Like Meadows, she intended the dark patina and textured surface to create a sense of the anxiety and aggression which she felt in the period following World War II (1939-45) and the onset of the Cold War. As Meadows explained, his work was ‘all about the human condition. The crabs, and the birds, and the armed figures, the pointing figures, are all about fear ... perhaps not fear, it’s vulnerability’ (Interview with Tamsyn Woollcombe, Artists’ Lives, November 1992, Tate Gallery Archive TAV415A).
Herbert Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, Exhibition of Works by Sutherland, Wadsworth, Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Clarke, Meadows, Moore, Paolozzi, Turnbull, exhibition catalogue, British Council, London 1952
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, reproduced pl.20, p.41