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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Print of an underwater scene with orange fish, flying fish with wings, seahorses, a lobster, a crab and a turtle.

The Enduring Beauty of Birds and Beasts

Jessica Vagg

[ News )

Having visited the Birds and Beasts: the Wild Escape exhibition recently, Chichester Harbour Conservancy’s Nature Recovery Projects Officer, Jessica Vagg, explains why a number of pieces of artwork resonate particularly with her.

Every featured subject that has been artistically captured is worthy of mention, at a time when so much of our precious wildlife is increasingly vulnerable to environmental threats and challenges. Having worked with Chichester Harbour Conservancy for the past 18 months, chiefly overseeing the ‘Return of the Tern’ campaign in collaboration with the Friends of Chichester Harbour, my eye has been particularly caught by those studies that conjure up the many species close to home as the South Downs and Chichester Harbour meet.

Gertrude Hermes’ Starlings is possibly my favourite (it’s so hard to single out any one piece, though!) as, although the scene is set elsewhere, its murmurations and swirlings at the top of the picture and an urban outline lower down as land meets sea conjures up a sense of Chichester and its surroundings. The wafting energy of starlings seems to buzz while all below is still and composed.

Print of a large tree in foreground with flocks of birds taking off from it making patterns in the sky. In the background you can see the skyline of a town and it is sunset.

Gertrude Hermes, Starlings, 1965, Linocut and woodcut on paper, Transfer from Derby County Council, Schools Library Service with Support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (2020).

Rather than focusing on one species, David Remfry’s Springsong stands out within the exhibition by celebrating so many different types of bird at once. I think I counted 14 altogether and although they are depicted in black and white somehow their different colours, patterns and songs are evoked. One of the reasons that Chichester Harbour has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is due to the various breeds that are resident or visit here. Some sixty-eight species – including terns, oyster catchers, gulls, waders, ducks, geese, grebes, divers, rails, auks and many more – have been recorded in the harbour, relying on available shelter and food for their survival.

Print of a peregrine falcon perched on an orange earth mound looking to right.

Elisabeth Frink, Peregrine Falcon, 1974, Etching with aquatint, Provided to Pallant House Gallery in accordance with the wishes of the artist’s late son, Lin Jammet, (2020).

Three different birds of prey we see in the harbour appear in Elisabeth Frink’s Birds of Prey’ series but it is her Peregrine Falcon that I am drawn to most as it offers a real sign of hope regarding bird protection and conservation. Peregrine falcons are such an important part of the food chain (which has lost so many other species) and in the past 20 years an increase in their numbers has been witnessed. As a sign that efforts around bird conservation are starting to pay off, Peregrine falcons provide a real ray of hope.

Photograph of a woman with long brown hair wearing a blue woollen hat with a harbour scene in the background

Jessica Vagg, Nature Recovery Officer, Friends of Chichester HarbourChichester Harbour Conservancy

It’s the bird world that has been at the forefront of my work since November 2021 when I took up my role within Chichester Harbour Conservancy – the statutory body responsible for managing Chichester Harbour and its surrounding areas. Thanks to  the support of the Friends of Chichester Harbour – with whom we enjoy an ongoing collaborative relationship – a £182,300 grant had been secured in August 2021 from the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund for the ‘Return of the Tern’ campaign. Spring 2022 saw the launch of five new tern rafts to encourage nesting during the four-month breeding season (May-August). Last autumn a shingle recharge of Stakes Island was undertaken to improve its tern habitat within the Itchenor channel in good time for this spring and summer ahead. Over the winter, the five turn rafts were stored on land and will be floated back to strategic points across the harbour next month ahead of little terns and common terns returning to our shores to breed and nest.

Print of an underwater scene with orange fish, flying fish with wings, seahorses, a lobster, a crab and a turtle.

Enid Marx, Creatures of the Sea, c. 1953, Linocut on paper, The Breuning-Eve Gift of Enid Marx Prints (2007)

As part of this campaign a small fish survey was undertaken so that the state of this essential food source for terns can be properly assessed. I am now about to become involved with another ambitious coastal project as the Conservancy teams up with Chichester Harbour Protection and Recovery of Nature (CHaPRoN) as one of a number of partners within the recently-launched Solent Seascape Project – looking to protect and restore at least 30% of the Solent’s seascape.

With this new brief, Enid Marx’s Creatures of the Sea jumped out at me, not just because of its wonderful vibrant colours but also how it flags up the biodiversity of the marine world. I love too how each fish is part of a pair; nothing swims alone underwater. Numbers and varieties have to be protected.

Print of a jumping hair in light brown

Elisabeth Frink, Hare, 1970, Lithograph on grained zinc in 2 colours, Provided to Pallant House Gallery in accordance with the wishes of the late artist’s late son, Lin Jammet (2020)

Again, the colours of An Old Crab and a Young by Edward Bawden reel you in but the parallel hook is how the old crab and its young remind us of the cycle of life and how what dies off must be renewed. As with Creatures of the Sea, there’s a playfulness among the subjects and they are given such personality that’s so uplifting to see.

Aside from fish and birds, I have enjoyed spotting bees, a hare and a moth as they all have their own roles to play within our precious ecosystems.

Graham Sutherland’s Expulsion and Killing of an Enemy should be a reminder of how important insects and other pollinators are as they can so often be overlooked and even disdained. The powerful colouring around the bees shows how they interact and appears to heighten their fearsome behaviour.

Mezzotint of a moth from above with wings outstretched

Sarah Gillespie, Common Quaker Moth, 2021, Mezzotint, The Golder-Thompson Gift (2021).

A couple of weeks ago I spotted a pair of hares fighting on Thorney Island in Chichester Harbour which was interesting to witness. We often think of them simply as larger, longer rabbits but Elisabeth Frink’s Hare from the ‘Eight Animals’ series  captures this mammal’s muscular legs and how it looks primed to pounce and be quite aggressive.

As with bees, and other insects, moths can often be under-appreciated, not being colourful like butterflies and also causing havoc with woollen garments!  They come in so many varieties. Sarah Gillespie’s Common Quaker Moth presented in such superb detail reveals its beauty, accentuated by the dark background works that conveys the environment it inhabits really well.

Photograph of Birds and Beasts exhibition with a large glass cabinet in the centre with a couple of open books and on the walls surrounding it are class cases with different sized prints of animals

Looking at Birds and Beasts up close in this exhibition, I really hope that as visitors step outside again they will have a sharper sense of the beauty and significance of the animal kingdom around them. While those in frames and on canvas are there for posterity, it’s worth remembering that their living counterparts are facing constant threat and fighting for survival.


If you would like to support environmental projects within the Chichester Harbour area and its surroundings (heading up to the foothills of the South Downs) find out more about joining the Friends of Chichester Harbour.

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