Monday, 2 January 2017

Birds of Winter

I’ve always liked that early sentence in Mackail’s Morris biography which reads: ‘The redwings and fieldfares which they [Morris and his brothers] shot on winter holidays they were allowed to roast for supper’.  Fiona MacCarthy reproduces it almost exactly: ‘the boys with their shotguns would kill redwings, fieldfares, rabbits.  They were then allowed to roast the birds for supper’ (p.8).  It isn’t so much the shooting and eating which excites me here, as the ornithological precision: the overly familiar generic category of ‘thrush’ gets finetuned down into these much more interesting sub-categories.

These birds continued to fascinate Morris in his adult years.  One of the Wanderers in the first volume of The Earthly Paradise muses that ‘Five years had passed since the grey fieldfare sung/To me a dreaming youth laid neath the thorn’.  In the entry for July 29 in his 1871 Iceland Journal Morris writes of ‘a very good birch-wood, among which it is pleasant to see the thrushes (or redwings?) flitting about’.  In a letter from Kelmscott of October 1872 he notes that ‘The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway, are chattering all about the berry trees now’.  And it has been suggested that the thrushes which inspired the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ design of 1883 may themselves have been fieldfares.
It is certain, at any rate, that Morris’s interest in fieldfares has inspired some contemporary artists.  Jane Kendall has done a fieldfare linocut which is loosely based on the Strawberry Thief design; it is 15cm square, and handprinted in white ink on handmade lokta paper.  Jane Tomlinson’s ‘Berry Seeker’ painting is, in its slightly unsettling way, still more evocative of this extraordinary winter bird.  Images of both follow this post.  If only Morris had worked a fieldfare or redwing or two into his fine early poem ‘Winter Weather’ to enhance its already impressive seasonal local colour!

Here is the Jane Kendall image: 

And here the Jane Tomlinson:


Kotick said...

Shooting birds seems to have been a favourite Victorian middle-class boy's occupation, Tony. For as Nicholas Murry notes in his Matthew Arnold biography, in speaking of Arnold's early days in the family Lake District home at Fox How, "One of Matthew's favourite pastimes was shooting snipe" (p.30). Whether he then roasted and ate them isn't recorded.

Tony Pinkney said...

Interesting link, thanks. As I sit here marking last term's close reading exercise on our Victorian Literature course, I find myself wondering Thomas Hardy's 'Darkling Thrush' mightn't actually have been a fieldfare too, frail and gaunt because the berries had run out ... Has anyone ever done a woodcut(or other)illustration to this poem, by the way?

S. Spreading said...

Florence Emily Hardy's life of her husband does contain an early fieldfare episode, for what it's worth: ‘he remembered … being in the garden at Bockhampton with his father on a bitterly cold winter day. They noticed a fieldfare, half-frozen, and the father took up a stone idly and threw it at the bird, possibly not meaning to hit it. The fieldfare fell dead, and the child Thomas picked it up and it was as light as a feather, all skin and bone, practically starved. He said he had never forgotten how the body of a fieldfare felt in his hand’ (Macmillan, 1962, p.444).

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