Not only did Cedric Morris paint birds, he bred them. His knowledge and understanding of these creatures may have contributed to his ability to re-create in paint, 'living, breathing, flying birds, not coloured reproductions of stuffed carcases', as one reviewer wrote of his exhibition at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, in May 1928 (quoted in Morphet, p.32).

In his analysis of Morris's paintings, Richard Morphet suggests that the 'unusual force of Cedric's paintings derives from the projection of the subject through a dynamic economy in combination with an acute sense of pictorial realism' (Morphet, p.82). In Peregrine Falcons, Morris does not attempt to record the exact physical detail of the birds or their surroundings. Instead he presents them in a slightly formalised and simplified manner, the intention of which is, in his own words, to 'provoke a lively sympathy with the mood of the birds which ornithological exactitude may tend to destroy' (quoted in Morphet, p.86).

This lively sympathy is further enhanced by animating the paint's surface. As early as 1922 Morris's use of texture had been noted by at least one reviewer, who wrote, 'the light dances among the waves of paint, flickering brightly, so the whole work takes on the appearance of a mosaic, tapestry or precious enamel' (quoted in Morphet, p.29). In Peregrine Falcons the use of a spiky impasto for the birds and background enlivens them and gives them an actual physical presence.

The composition of the painting and Morris's use of colour forcefully underscore the falcons's status as the subjects of the picture. There is a dramatic divide in the background between the rocks surrounding the bird on the left and the distant sky framing the one on the right. The move from shallow spatial depth on the left to extremely deep perspective on the right maintains the visual interest in both halves and pushes each bird forward. Likewise, the warm colours of their plumage and talons advance against the receding cool tones of the background.

In the lower left, next to the four eggs, is a duck's skull. Its inclusion is a reminder of the predatory nature of these birds, and is typical of Morris's unsentimental understanding of the animal kingdom and its cycle of life.

In an article titled 'A Left-to-Right Painter', published in the Evening Standard, 9 May 1928, the critic R H Wilenski revealed that Morris painted his pictures from the top left corner without any preparatory drawing on the canvas, proceeding inch by inch until he reached the bottom right corner. Although such a method might seem incompatible with Morris's statement in 1924 that 'all my pictures are painted from the original in the open air' (quoted in Morphet, p.91), there is no underdrawing visible in Peregrine Falcons. This suggests that either Morris changed his practice after 1924 or, as Morphet believes, that neither method was exclusively followed. It is not known where the picture was painted, though it is likely that it was at Benton End, near Hadleigh, Suffolk, to where he and Arthur Lett-Haines had moved The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in 1940.

Further reading:
Richard Morphet, Cedric Morris, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984

Toby Treves
November 2000