It was a common marketing ploy throughout the 20th century to include collectible cards in the packets of everyday items such as tea or cigarettes. Brooke Bond commissioned C.F. Tunnicliffe RA, the acclaimed bird portraitist, to paint a set of 50 British birds in 1957 for their teas. They are beautiful, jewel-like vignettes, evocative of perhaps a more innocent time. The birds are full of character and energy, their settings richly imagined. There are, however, sinister and melancholy overtones to these initially charming, modest and wholesome little objects. It is, to begin with, a cynical attempt to develop brand loyalty, particularly in children. The tea industry has strong associations with colonialism, which are emphasised by the fact that these are labelled ‘British’ birds. (Can birds have a nationality?) And the idea that we can collect nature, own a complete set, reminds one of accumulations of taxidermied creatures, boxes of rare eggs destined never to hatch, and frames filled with insects pinned through the heart. All these obsessions arise from healthy and admirable curiosity about the non-human world; but they take on a warped character as we humans constantly mistake possession for connection.
I painted the birds white on white because I wanted to play with ideas of visibility and extinction. Could they evade the collector’s gaze? fail to reveal their identifying and desirable colours? Perhaps through being looked at and observed by the hungry anthropocentric eye, they have faded, flickered, died out. Painting them demanded a meditative, almost worshipful or ascetic process, and through making them difficult to see, I want to slow the viewer down, make them lean in, spend time, and look in a different way. I work as an archivist as well as a painter, and I am interested in the ways in which preservation and organization of knowledge and meaning in archives reflects and affects our understanding or misunderstanding of the world. I hope this project prompts people to consider some of these themes, and to think about how we think about nature.