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  • Writer's pictureWill Topley

Painting Game

About 4 or 5 times a year I have been kindly invited to shoot with various friends . People who shoot will know that it’s a great day out, sometimes even a weekend. At the end of the day we see the game keeper and he  generally offers each gun a brace of birds (a cock and a hen strung together at the neck).

Brace of grouse, oil on gesso

Each shoot will have its own rules as to what is to be shot that day but vermin are included in the bag, pigeon are great for making pate, jays and magpies probably not so good but if I see something unusal or that catches my eye then I will ask for it to paint. Pheasant need to be hung for up to a week in a shed depending on how cold it is out so if I can manage a quick sketch we can still eat it afterwards.

Rook, oil on panel I have painted detailed pictures of game in the past but I tried to get these done quickly, I wanted them to be fresh and lively and also I didn’t want to spend too much time doing them, they are small momentos of the day The other great thing is having something interesting to cook. Plucking the birds is a hell of a job so often I just remove the breast and make a game pate, a pie or perhaps even a Thai pheasant curry. Families that shoot alot sometimes say that they get tired of pheasant done up 100 different ways but I never seem to get bored of it. There is of course a long tradition of painting game. It is a seasonal sport so it depicts a time of year*. It also depicts a time of feasting. There are some wonderful still lifes that depict all sorts of game including duck, hare and venison.  This still life attrributed to Jan Fyt is in the National Gallery in London is a nice example of a 17th century Dutchpainting of the gendre.

A Still Life with Fruit, Dead Game and a Parrot late 1640s, Attributed to Jan Fyt

Its quite funny, when I come home in the evening carrying my shooting kit and a brace of birds,  I come into the kitchen where our African Grey parrot lives and I generally try to hide the birds from her. I don’t know why, it’s stupid really as she is as keen on a roast pheasant leg as any of us. To see her standing on her perch holding a drumstick in her claw and chomping through it is hilarious. I’m struggling to think of any contempory artists who paint pictures of dead game. Some years ago I was at the Slade with Melissa Scott Miller, she was my girlfriend at the time, her father shot with a syndicate and she painted many a brace of pheasant, often quite large paintings but she mostly paints London Scenes now and she is a well respected Artist, a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and The New English Art Club. Archibald Thorburn, a Victorian artist who specialised in sporting pictures usually painted pheasant or grouse in flight, A number of living artists paint game alive, flying or running about, just not shot game as still life.

Archibald Thorburn – Swerving from the Guns, Red Grouse watercolour and bodycolour 74 by 130cm 1913

Tastes change and less people want paintings of dead birds. I could be like that too if I had always lived in town but when you are out in the field with a bag of cartridges and your gun in your hands and the first flush of birds start to come through the excitment is almost unbearable. You are in contact with an element of your being that was asleep, the hunter is in all of us and has been since we were cavemen. The birds have a good life in the wild, unlike their distant cousins chickens which are brought up in disgraceful conditions laying eggs for us and of course the conditions many pigs are raised in for pork and bacon is a scandal. The people who buy these supermarket products really should get out more and have roast pheasant sometimes and being lean its also better for you so ideal for today’s figure conscious urbanite.

Pigoeon, oil on panel

*In the UK the game season opens in August with grouse on the Glorious 12th, partidge on the 1st of September and the 1st October for pheasant. The season ends on the 2nd February.

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