Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe - Auction Highlight

Read about the illustrative woodblocks and etched copper plates coming up in our Fine & Classic Sale

As part of our upcoming Fine & Classic Sale, we are offering a special collection of Charles F. Tunnicliffe’s original carved woodblocks and etched copper plates. As an artist widely considered to be a leading figure in the world of twentieth century wildlife art, to hold or to own any one of these blocks is to engage with a unique piece of his artistic practice and of art history itself.


Born in 1901 and raised on a farm in Cheshire, Tunnicliffe’s art has always been inspired by the nature that he grew up in. Even when he went to London to study art formally at the Royal College of Art, he was initially hesitant to make the move over fears that it was too far removed from the countryside that he loved. Despite this, he ended up opting to study in London for another year in order to learn the art of etching, which led to him initially beginning a career selling etchings to the American market. The events of the early 1930s obviously effected this market significantly, with demand for art falling and Tunnicliffe being forced to look elsewhere for money. It was his wife, Winfred Wonnacott, who encouraged him to send some drawings to the publishers of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927), with the offer of contributing to an illustrated edition. She believed that this was an ideal book for illustrating, and as a book that is centred around an otter and his “joyful life and death in the country of two rivers”, its themes and characters were in a natural alignment with Tunnicliffe’s own passions for depicting wildlife. His skill in etching also lent itself to a career in illustration at a time when publishers were reliant on the use of carved woodblocks for the cheap printing of images in mass produced books.


Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe (British 1901-1979), "Tarka crossing the Braunton Burrows on his way to the estuary", original carved woodblock, this illustration appears on page 215 of 'Tarka the Otter' by Henry Williamson, 1932.

Estimate £500-700.


Illustration is a commercial art, in the sense that the artist is creating artwork in order to fulfil a brief. While some would try and suggest that illustrating a text is then the simple translation of another’s words into a visual form, this is a very superficial way of looking at it and diminishes the role of the illustrator as an artist. Tunnicliffe’s own illustrations stand to show why this is not the case, as they are so clearly expressive of his own personal ideas and style.


The woodblocks and copper plates featured here were used in the publications of the illustrated editions of Williamson’s novels Tarka the Otter, The Old Stag, The Lone Swallows and The Peregrine’s Saga, and they should be viewed for the way that they exist as Tunnicliffe’s own visual interpretations of the prevailing themes of each of them. As novels that centre on the detailed observation of Britain’s wildlife, these carvings and etchings of Tunnicliffe’s were clearly informed by his own understanding and appreciation of the natural world; Tunnicliffe said throughout his career that he did not illustrate subjects that he felt he did not know. He is most often credited for the way that his depictions of nature avoid appearing stiff, despite their intense detail and scientific accuracy. This, he would claim, was the result of him only drawing nature as it looked “at the moment the artist was impressed by it”.[1] Tunnicliffe was therefore neither just an imitator of word or nature, but an artist who was able to depict the characters of Williamson’s works as they would have appeared in nature, rewarding the novels’ readers with both the visual aid and satisfaction that illustrations aim for. These collected stories by Williamson form a series, further bound together by the visual identity that Tunnicliffe was therefore able to give them with his art.


Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe (British 1901-1979), "The Oddmedodd in the Big Wheatfield", original carved woodblock, this illustration appears on page 28 of 'The Old Stag' by Henry Williamson, 1933.

Estimate £600-800.


These etchings then are a testament to the way that the collaboration between artist and author can be highly creative on both sides. Williamson’s editor-in-chief, Constant Huntington, wrote that these works by Tunnicliffe were “a series of original creations of [his] own on the subjects which Williamson has treated in his book”, arguing for the appreciation of Tunnicliffe’s illustrations as pieces of art in their own right, despite their commercial origins.[2] These original carved woodblocks and copper plates were not defaced by the artist after use so remain technically useful and exist as an exciting opportunity to own something significant to both the art and literary worlds.


This post discusses lots 489-503, featured in our Fine & Classic Sale on 11th July.



Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe (British 1901-1979), "Hooded Crows", original carved woodblock, estimate £300-500 and "Bird of Paradise", original carved woodblock, estimate £200-400.


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