The estuary is stunning in the late autumn sun and a fierce northerly wind as we set off from Malltraeth to walk along the Cob. Before us, the view of Eryri (Snowdonia) to the south-east is familiar from so many paintings and illustrations: Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach, Crib Goch, snow-capped Yr Wyddfa. And away to the south the three distinct peaks of Yr Eifl, The Forks.
That familiarity is of course due to the life’s work of one man: the artist Charles Tunnicliffe RA, who lived here from 1947 until his death in 1979. His work has been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember: posters on my childhood bedroom wall, cover paintings of magazines, illustrations and sketches in books both by and about him. I’m not generally much given to hero-worship, but in the case of Tunnicliffe I make an exception.
Looking across the mudflats and rising tide, I can see his house, Shorelands. It seems smaller than it looks in photos I’ve seen, partly I think due to the pine trees which have grown up behind it. I sit on a bench on the Cob and imagine what it must have been like to live here.
It’s easy to see why Tunnicliffe chose this place; the estuary is covered in birds, all there beyond his garden wall ‘just for the looking’ as he put it. There are Shelducks, Curlews, Redshank, Greenshank, hundreds of Wigeon, Little Grebes in the channel by the road bridge, and several Little Egrets, a species which I doubt Tunnicliffe ever saw alive here, although he did make a measured drawing of a dead one.
As well as the sheer numbers of birds, I’m surprised at how approachable they all are. Back at home in Leicestershire I doubt I could get anywhere near as close to Pintail or Curlew. Even the usually nervous Redshanks feed happily at the water’s edge just a few yards away from me.
On Cob Lake there are around a hundred Pintail, some surely descendants of birds that Tunnicliffe himself sketched here. I photograph them with my digital camera, something that didn’t even exist in his lifetime, and feel inadequate. Here, of all places, I should be sketching the birds, not photographing them. But I don’t have enough time, and it’s too cold. But those are clearly just excuses to avoid any comparison between my poor attempts and those of the master. One day I will come back and do it properly, I tell myself.
Back in the village I walk down the narrow lane, past the tiny old chapel with its bell tower made famous by Tunnicliffe’s painting of Swallows and martins in the Ladybird book What to Look for in Autumn. Up close, the house is clearly more hemmed in by other buildings and trees than it was in this photo taken in 1947 (from Portrait of a Country Artist by Ian Niall).
Walking along the Cob and around the village, I’m constantly struck by the feeling that I’m seeing sights that Tunnicliffe himself saw with his own eyes; sights that inspired so much of the great artwork that came out of that same house that still stands there on the shore.
It’s often been said about Tunnicliffe that he was the most down-to-earth individual imaginable, and had no time for any kind of romanticism. But, viewed anything up to 80 years later, there surely has to be an element of the romantic in his work now, depicting as it does a bygone age, before the mechanization of farming, before TV, computers, digital cameras and mobile phones dominated our lives, and before we realised just how much of the natural world we are destroying.
There is a comforting simplicity in his best work which transports us to the past and makes us forget, at least for a moment, the problems of the modern world.