The White Drake by Glasgow Boy Joseph Crawhall is currently being shown at the Scottish National Gallery. As a delicate watercolour on linen, the painting is only on display for limited periods, so don’t miss your chance to see it.
Senior Curator Charlotte Topsfield tells the story of The White Drake, and the technique Joseph Crawhall developed to create such a natural and realistic work.
Why is The White Drake such a special work?
The White Drake of 1895 is one of the best loved watercolours in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections. It shows an Aylesbury duck wandering through a spring-like meadow filled with daisies and dandelions. And it’s by a specialist animal painter. Joseph Crawhall is best known for his association with the Glasgow Boys, but he specialised in painting animals and birds, not in the sentimental style you might expect of a Victorian pet portrait but in a much more naturalistic way. He really tried to capture the essence and character of the bird. And you can see how carefully he observed every detail of the duck’s anatomy and the beautiful play of light on the feathers.
Is it true that he painted this from memory?
As a specialist animal painter, Crawhall loved animals and birds and was deeply knowledgeable about them and he had practiced drawing them since childhood. And, yes, he did in fact create these incredible paintings from memory. His contemporaries remember him studying animals and birds, really intensely, scrutinising them for hours. But then he’d go back to the studio, he’d work very slowly and he’d produce extraordinary works such as this, entirely from memory.
And when you look at the level of detail and the incredible lifelike qualities in the fall of light on the bird’s plumage, using Chinese white to create thick highlights, it’s really quite remarkable how he could capture such an effect from his memory.
His sister recalled that the praise he most appreciated was that of experts in animals and birds, believing that while most people can recognise a beautiful image, only the breed expert can testify to the accurate representation of the animal or bird – and with Crawhall’s work, they frequently did so.
What was his technique for painting this?
Crawhall developed his own technique for painting his extraordinary pictures. He painted in watercolour and gouache, which is opaque watercolour, on brown Holland linen. This is a really difficult support to work with because it’s very absorbent, so it demanded immense precision and technical ability and control. Much more paint is needed on the brush to cover the surface of linen, than when working on paper. He used the grain and texture of the fabric to add depth and richness to the painting, letting the watercolour saturate the support in some areas and letting thick gouache sit on the surface in other areas, creating a sense of recession within the image. The incredible intensity of colour is achieved by layering and retouching areas of paint – it would have been a very slow process.
Crawhall was perhaps influenced by his study of Chinese watercolour paintings on silk, and also of Japanese prints. And the flattened perspective and isolated motif of the bird in this watercolour may have been influenced by his study of Japanese prints, which he greatly admired.
Who was Joseph Crawhall?
Although born in Northumberland, Joseph Crawhall is associated with the group of artists known as the Glasgow Boys. He was particularly close friends with James Guthrie and Edward Arthur Walton, with whom he travelled and worked alongside in the Trossachs, Lincolnshire and Berwickshire in the early 1880s. The three artists exchanged jokey letters and played games of ‘Heads, Bodies and Legs’.
Crawhall shared the other Glasgow Boys interest in painting subjects drawn from everyday life and their belief in the importance of the decorative design of a picture. But unlike the other Glasgow Boys, apart from Arthur Melville, he specialised in watercolour painting and he was the only member of the group to focus on painting animals. He was a reserved character, immensely self-critical, who destroyed any picture that did not meet his high standards, but he was also well-liked and witty and drew humorous caricatures.
Why is the White Drake so popular?
It’s a very happy image, beautifully painted and bright, and on a dreich day in February, what could be more cheering than looking at a duck wandering through a spring meadow.