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Richard Barratt Talbot Kelly 1896- 1971

“No form of life lives life more fully than a bird” stated Talbot Kelly in “The Way of all Birds” and Kelly’s genius was his ability to capture this vitality in his paintings.  As such, he was one of the great ornithological artists of the 20th century.  Talbot Kelly developed a unique style that is instantly recognisable, whether painting in watercolour, oil, or coloured inks, but he is epitomised by his use of ink outline, filled with watercolour.  His paintings are characterised by their simplicity without the distraction of unnecessary detail, his colour palette muted, a strong use of flowing sinuous line – that lives and pulses with life.   But Talbot Kelly was also very aware of the grace, rhythm and pattern displayed in the movement and flight of birds, as displayed in his paintings.  He was a great and sensitive observer of birds and wrote “I have spent the happiest moments of my life with birds”; not surprisingly his birds are always accurately portrayed and always with the fire of their lives. When he writes of birds he does so poetically and with obvious affection: he describes the colour of a Fulmar as that of pale cobwebs, warmer than the blue-grey gulls and he likens the “broad beam” and robust build of Eider drakes to sea-going fishing boats; he notes that Shrikes have their “weight-forward…as weight in shoulders and fists are the hallmarks of the pugilist”.  Such poetical interpretation and innate understanding of birds is very apparent in his paintings.  But Talbot Kelly was more than just a bird painter in watercolour, he was highly versatile, and equally adept at designing posters, drawing figures, historical and military scenes, and fantastical imagery.  He occasionally produced etchings and linocuts.

Talbot Kelly or Dick (at Rugby School) or TK was one of a notable dynasty of Artists, his Grandfather, Father and Daughter (Chloe Talbot Kelly) all well-known artists and illustrators.  His childhood experiences in Egypt, where his family sojourned each winter (His father Robert Talbot Kelly wrote and painted “Egypt Painted and Described” pub. Adam and Charles Black, London 1902) influenced his painting style as Egyptian Paintings of birds in their natural surroundings, although formalized, greatly inspired him by their simplicity and accuracy.  He was also influenced by the naturalness and life expressed in Chinese bird paintings and their use of space and absence of unnecessary detail. He signed his paintings with a distinctive device in imitation of Chinese brush-stroke signatures.  His main western influencers, as documented in “The Way of all Birds” were Liljefors and Crawhall, with passing appreciation of Frank Southgate and Edwin Alexander, and of the “illustrators” he singles out Gronvold (strangely, he does not mention Thorburn)  

Following life in the Army and serving in the Great War as a gunner, in 1929 TK was appointed art master at Rugby School where he remained until 1966.   He was a personable man, warm-hearted and sensitive, never expressing dislike of anyone.  This sensitivity and understanding is very evident in his portrayal of birds.  But for me there is one profound enigma regarding TK and that is how someone of such sensitive awareness was able to serve in WW1 in such a detached manner; in his war biography A Subaltern's Odyssey. A memoir of the Great War 1915–1917. (Kimber. 1980) there are none of the usual musings over the futility and horror of war.  It is not that he wasn’t aware of the war’s brutality, but he was able to put this on one side and get on with his responsibilities in a business-like manner, unsullied by such sensibilities.  On one occasion he recounts using the calcified body of a fallen soldier as a pillow and does so not in disrespect to his dead ally, but simply in answer to a practical need.   To be so sensitive and aware, but at the same time untainted by sentimentality, is rare indeed and perhaps it is this that made him such a good artist.

In his book “Birdlife and the Painter” Talbot Kelly sums up his philosophy of bird painting “What should the artist do- be accurate to bird anatomy, or true to the impression?  Personally, I would still choose the latter, it seems to be the only honest course for any painter to pursue.” Of this, Christine Jackson writes “This was over-modest, for his sound knowledge of anatomy enabled him to present a true outward impression.”  And previewing a 2015 World Land Trust Art Gallery exhibition which included his work, Nikki Hawes wrote of Talbot Kelly “Familiarity with his subjects, which included both insight and understanding, was the key to Talbot Kelly's work. His ability to exclude what he knew to be the facts and concentrate on what he had seen puts his work into the highest category of bird painting.”


Publications and Exhibitions

[Written and illustrated by Talbot Kelly] The Way of Birds Collins 1937.  Paper Birds Puffin 1947. Mountain and Moorland Birds (Puffin Picture Books, Number 65) Puffin 1947. Bird Life and the Painter Studio Publications 1955. 3-D Birds Royal Society for the Protection of Birds c. 1969.  A Subaltern's Odyssey. A memoir of the Great War 1915–1917 Kimber 1980.


[Illustrated by Talbot Kelly] Lockley, R. M. Birds of the Sea: (King Penguin No. 24) Penguin 1945.  Simson, Clive. A Bird Overhead H. F. & G. Witherby Ltd. 1966. Talbot Kelly, Chloë. Richard Barratt Talbot Kelly 1896 – 1971 The Wildlife Art Gallery 2005.


[Other items] Posters advertising Suffolk and Norfolk published by British Railways. Postcards for British Museum (Natural History) and Bladon Society of Arts and Crafts.  Illustration in summer 1966 RSPB Birds magazine.


[Exhibitions and more] The Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Paris Salon. Major retrospective exhibition at The Wildlife Art Gallery, Lavenham, Suffolk 2005. Design consultant for the Pavilion of Natural Science at the Festival of Britain. Founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Art teacher at Rugby.

Created: 03-04-2020 19:00:17
Modified: 04-04-2020 10:55:23