Hoots from the Archive - Spotlight on Old Mancunians: The Bird-Man of MGS - Charles Tunnicliffe, 1901 - 79

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 08 Feb 2024


In his 1992 Ulula article tracing the history of teaching art at MGS, teacher David Stockwell describes the ‘star-quality’ surrounding the renowned artist and illustrator Charles Tunnicliffe’s (pictured above) presence as a teacher at the school:

During the Second World War the school might have turned to advantage the presence of a major artist on the staff.  Charles Tunnicliffe RA (he of the birds) taught here from 1941 to 1946.

In the same article, however, Stockwell qualifies this positive side of Tunnicliffe’s time at the school by quoting from Ian Niall’s biography on the artist, which he admits, "makes rather dismal reading":

As a full-time art master he had a turnover of 1,400 boys through his class once every fortnight . . . Design and poster work were no more inspiring for the class than they were for the master who was aware that art, probably more than any other subject, really depends upon an obsession.  Art is something to be cultivated, if it is there, but little impression can be made upon reluctant pupils.  Most of these 1,400 pupils had little talent and those who had could hardly be improved by brief contact with even the most competent of instructors.

Stockwell counters this rather harsh judgement of the pupils by pointing out that: “It is extremely doubtful that he would have taught all 1,400 boys at the school”, concluding that: “We can accept that there never has been enough time for art but not that there was at any time an innate lack of talent among our boys.

Tunnicliffe first came to the attention of a wider public as the illustrator of Henry Williamson’s classic children’s book Tarka the Otter in 1932, and his later work on the popular Ladybird series of seasonal books entitled What to Look For in . . . (1959-61) (see images below).  However, his name – as implied by David Stockwell above - subsequently became more associated with the depiction of birds, an area of his art which became increasingly important to him, with many books (he illustrated over 80 books in total) being published devoted to the subject such as Birds of the Estuary (1952), British Birds of the Wild Places (1961), RSPB Book of Garden Birds (1979) and A Sketchbook of Birds (1979).

During his time at the school - in-between teaching duties - Tunnicliffe found time to create a skillful and stylish caricature of several ‘members of the Common Room’ (see image below), clearly affectionate rather than satirical in its intent, a copy of which is held in the school archive.  Although the identities of the staff members are not formally named,  the central figure has been identified as High Master Eric James, with Tunnicliffe’s fellow art teacher and Head of Department Ernest Hollowell directly behind him, holding a precariously balanced tray of tea-cups.  It also seems plausible that the figure at the top left with unruly hair and pencils and sketchbook protruding from his pocket could perhaps be a self-portrait of Tunnicliffe himself.  The picture is titled ‘The Fire Watchers’, referring to the log fire in the old common room (before the current, relocated central-heated incarnation), around which members of staff would warm themselves in the Winter months during breaks and lunchtime, and whose stylised flames are just visible in the foreground. 

Another attractive item in the archive is a set of five first-edition Royal Mail stamps (shown below) from 1995, commemorating fifty years of the Wildlife & Wetlands Trust, featuring Tunnicliffe’s bird illustrations. 

Also held in the archive is an illustrated catalogue (shown below) outlining a major auction of items from Tunnicliffe’s studio, which took place in May 1981, two years after the artist’s death, at Christie’s, London.  Alongside the illustrations – predominantly of his bird pictures - the catalogue also includes an illuminating introductory essay by Tunnicliffe’s biographer Ian Niall, which poignantly describes the troubled last years of the artist following the death of his devoted wife Winifred and a subsequent car accident. He was hospitalized for a short time but came home none the better.  He couldn’t really see what he was doing and he had always been a precise draughtsman and watercolourist.  The nature of his subjects called for fine details, down to the scales on the leg of a small bird, and he was a man who had no time for haze and impressionism.  There was, alas, nothing that an eye specialist could do for him and his work was beyond him.  These were days of extreme trauma, for he had had nothing in his life but his work.  There was nothing else he would do.  He died one evening in January 1979, sitting in his chair before the fire.

Otto Smart


Lisa Murphy

1 Like Posted 19 days ago

I’ve never seen the Common Room illustration but it seems quite like Beckmann in it’s composition and the relationship between the figures. 

Robert Sides

1 Like Posted 18 days ago

One of my heroes, I cannot believe I didn't know he was at MGS. I still possess the “What to look for" books, they helped inspire my life long interest in nature.

 I shared Tunnicliffe's love of the west coast of Ynys Mon (Anglesey) and I am lucky enough to have a property there. I often think of his work when walking along the shore, especially in the off season.

So sad the read of his troubled later life.

Walter Houston

2 Likes Posted 17 days ago

You can see Tunnicliffe originals in Macclesfield, close to his birthplace in Sutton, at the Silk Museum, Park Lane SK11 6TJ.

Oliver Smyth

1 Like Posted 16 days ago

May I clear up one point and that concerns the cartoon? I have a print of the cartoon and the photo upon which it was based. This was taken during WW2 fire-watching and from a slightly different angle. Charles Tunnicliffe annotated it and my mother Dorothea Hardisty (South Manchester Prep) added the names of five of the six men in the photo. Referring to the cartoon, they were Tunnicliffe with the owl, Hollowell with the tray, my father JFQ Smyth (Smiggy) in his braces on the right clutching a cheese whilst at the front centre is WS Montgomerie (Head of SMP) and on the right J Kennelly who appears to be in PE kit. I do not know the identity of the person who is front left. Charles Tunnicliffe was an outstanding draughtsman and would have been able to distinguish Eric James and Montgomerie who is shown in the photo with a pocket handkerchief and looking very dapper.

Rachel Kneale

0 Likes Posted 14 days ago

Thanks Oliver, great to know more detail about the cartoon

Don MacRae

2 Likes Posted 13 days ago

I first discovered that Tunnicliffe had taught at MGS when visiting Oriel Ynys Mon in Llangefni a few years ago.  After his death Anglesey County Council had the foresight to purchase the contents of his studio in Malltraeth which are now imaginatively exhibited. He composed a diary, illustrated with beautiful scraperboard drawings, of the first six months of his life in Anglesey, The Summer Diaries.  It's a great pleasure to follow them week by week each year.

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