Animal Painter Arthur Wardle

Animal Painter ARTHUR WARDLE

In the first two decades of this century Arthur Wardle was one of the best known of living British animal painters. He portrayed an astonishing diversity of subjects with an engaging naturalism, and a command of different media. Unlike most British animal and sporting artists who restricted themselves to horse and hound, deer and domesticated beasts, Wardle both drew and painted every mammal from elephant to mouse – in watercolour, pastel and oil pigment.

Oil painting by Arthur WardleWardle was born in London in 1864 and started painting at a very early age. In later life he stated that his artistic education had been undertaken “privately”. He did not have a formal art school training but as an aspiring artist, he would probably have taken lessons from some of the numerous artists resident near his home in Chelsea.

In 1880, when Wardle was only 16, his paintings were first accepted for exhibition: Study of cattle on the banks of the Thames at The Royal Academy; and two oils at the winter exhibition of the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street. The subjects of his exhibits in the 1880s reveal little of the artist’s later work; rather they read like the standard titles of a hundred Victorian landscapists – grey days, twilights, evening glows and moonrises. In the 1890s however, new titles signal a change: The Vanquished, shown at Suffolk Street in the winter of 1890-1, and Panthers resting and Midnight prowlers at the Academy the next summer mark Wardle’s conversion to animal painting. This coincided with the maturing of his technique as an artist. Perhaps because Wardle was largely self-taught he was slow to develop as a painter, and his early works, though competent, show little of the facility with oil which emerges in the mid 1890s.

Wardle established his reputation as a painter at the Royal Academy with a series of large oils of mythological or imaginative scenes which combined figures, often loosely draped, with animals: Diana, shown in 1897, lying asleep among her hounds; The Flute of Pan (1899), played by the young faun to sprawling leopards and alert rabbits; The Enchantress (1901) and Circe (1908), both seductresses lying and playing with attendant leopards. Among the finest of such subjects was A Bacchante of 1909, described in The Studio < Yol 52. 1911. p.208) as a “charming fantasy….The Bacchante is particularly to be noted for the beauty of its line arrangement and for the charm of its colour, but it is also singularly attractive as an example of his animal painting at its best: it has all his intimacy of observation, all his sense of character, all his intelligent regard for nature, and it is distinguished not less by its freshness of conception and grace of style”.

Wardle was being canny in choosing such subjects. By introducing classical (or indeed biblical or legendary) figures into compositions which were still largely arrangements of mammals, the humble animal painter could elevate his painting to the status of “High Art”, imaginative rather than simply naturalistic, and therefore worthy of closer scrutiny from the critics. (The inclusion of scantily dressed women also helped to attract comment). Of the artistic generation before Wardle, Briton Riviere (1840-1920) had shown the way in the 1870s. Riviere exhibited Circe and the Friends of Odysseus in 1871, Daniel confronting the lions the next year, and worked his way through Apollo, Actaeon, Endymion, Adonis, Pallas Athene and even Prometheus, with their attributed packs, herds and other numbers of beasts. A child prodigy, Riviere achieved fame and wealth; he became a Royal Academician in 1880, and nearly became President of the Academy in 1896 after the death of Millais. His career would have been an example and spur to Wardle.

Wardle was simultaneously exhibiting purely naturalistic animal paintings at the Academy. Most of these were of the big cats, and among them favourite themes recur. The Deer-Stealer of 1915 is characteristic of a number of compositions in its opposition of the tiger, perched on a lofty rocky outcrop, with distant prey just visible in the valley below. Likewise Wardle loved to paint his cats at the dramatic moment they seize their prey: jaguars wrestling with a python, or grasping a macaw; or a puma pouncing on a turkey. Wardle caught so successfully what one reviewer described as the “picturesque savagery” (The Studio, Vol 52, 1911, p.202) of the big cats; their stealth and ferocity, but also the beauty of their markings and lithe grace.

In British art, a predecessor in painting the big cats was Stubbs. But though his lions and tigers were acutely observed and superbly realised, their classicising treatment and setting in temperate landscapes have little in common with Wardle’s totally convincing portrayal of steamy jungles or rocky wastes. Rather Wardle’s art has distant roots in French Romantic art, in Delacroix’s lion hunts, Barye’s bronzes of fierce struggles in the animal kingdom, and Gerome’s arid landscapes with lions. From the latter there is a clear link to late Victorian animal painting in that John Macallan Swan, painter and sculptor, studied under Gerome in Paris in the 1880s. Swan (1847-1910) was one of a number of British artists who followed Briton Riviere in exhibiting large scale portrayals of wild animals from the late 1880s, among them the sporting painter Heywood Hardy (1843-1933), Herbert Dicksee (1862-1942), John Charles Dollman “(1851-1934) and John Trivett Nettleship (1841-1902). That so many artists simultaneously turned to such subjects must reflect an increasing interest in the exotic at the time: and one might surmise that just as the French Romantic artists followed French troops into North Africa, so the opening up of Africa by exploration and the expansion of Empire fostered the high Victorian artists’ study of big game.

From 1892 Wardle lived with his wife, Cecilia, in St. John’s Wood, a district of North London which attracted many artists. For him its chief appeal was its proximity to London Zoo. The Zoo provided his only real opportunity to study his subject matter at close hand. He was a regular visitor and could often be seen sketching and painting in all weathers. How much he studied animals in the wild is unknown. Family tradition has it that he did not travel outside Britain. However, a number of drawings in this collection are inscribed with place names whilst several of these may refer to the source of the animals portrayed, nevertheless it seems probable that he made at least one journey to West and Central Africa, and visited India and South East Asia in the 1920’s.

Wardle created his large oils back in his studio. There he was surrounded by his sketches of animals and his collection of skeletons and reticulated models. For the landscape backgrounds he would draw on numerous sketches, mainly executed in oil: the rocky outcrops on which his lions or leopards recline are recognisable as the Devon Tors on Exmoor, where he often spent his summer months. In the studio Wardle maintained a rigid routine of working from 9am until 7pm, with a break for a walk in the afternoon.
Wardle’s reputation may have been made with his large mythological paintings, but his most individual work was in pastel. Pastel underwent a revival in Britain in the 1890s. Inspired by French art many leading British artists – the Glasgow Boys, Guthrie and Melville, and the pastoral painter George Clausen among them – had experimented successfully with pastel, leading to the foundation of the Pastel Society, of which Wardle was elected a member in 1911. Wardle glorified in the strong pure tones possible in the medium: he boldly combined free and vivid drawing with strong shades of coloured paper. A long article by the distinguished critic Alfred Lys Baldry published in The Studio magazine in July 1916 paid tribute to Wardle’s skill in the medium.

“He has a brilliant appreciation of the genius of pastel…He uses it with delightful dexterity and with a sureness of touch…”.

Baldry understood the advantages of the medium for an animal painter. Pastels were easily
portable, and did not demand either preliminary preparation or drying time. Most important,
they permitted Wardle to work with speed – vital when his subjects were restless wild beasts that  were liable to suddenly move their pose, or even stalk off sulkily, and could not be obligingly rearranged like a studio model.

Of course Wardle did not only paint African, Indian and South American big game. He was also the chronicler of dogs, both pets and working dogs. Indeed so successful was he in attending to the minutest details of pose, coat texture and expression that he became the favourite artist of dog breeders. Many of his oils and studies of those works are inscribed with the names of the pedigree dogs and their owners.

If his wildlife subjects earned him critical acclaim – and indeed important sales, as Fate was purchased for 300 guineas with the Chantrey Bequest funds for the Tate Gallery in 1904 – it was his dog paintings which gave him a wider fame among the public. His images were extremely widely reproduced: several tobacco companies, among them Players Ltd, commissioned Wardle to design sets of cigarette cards of dogs, no less than 250 in all, which proved to be enormously popular: he was commissioned to paint dog paintings for illustration in B. Rawdon Lee’s books; and his pictures appeared on postcards, playing cards, calendars, pottery, chocolate boxes and biscuit-tins, and even kind of stationer.

He earned other honours too. Public collections in Australia. New Zealand and South Africa purchased major paintings. In 1924 Wardle was one of the few animal artists represented at the palace of Arts at the Great British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and in 1931, late in life, he held his first one man exhibition at The Fine Art Society, consisting largely of big game subjects. But though he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy to 1938 – he showed no less than 113 works there during his life – election even to Associate Member of the Academy eluded him. At the end of his life he lived quietly in Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, sharing a house with a photographer, Mr. Hawkings. One of his grandchildren remembers at the age of seven seeing boxes of medals and awards lying on the floor there alongside the easels and paints, but long before his death in 1949 Wardle’s art had been forgotten.

Where now does his reputation stand, on the evidence of this collection? He had two great talents. He had an extraordinary ability, whether working in oil or pastel, to capture the appearance of animals, which derived from his knowledge of anatomy and long hours of intense observation and precise sketching. But yet more important was his understanding and expression of animal character. His beasts are free of self-consciousness, and of that anthropomorphism which mars so much nineteenth century animal art. They are free, and, as The Studio critic noted in 1911, they “are living things which dwell in a world of their own and tolerate no human interference”.