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Black Wings

Richard Bell’s nature diary, London,  Tuesday,  12th May 2009, page 5 of 6

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copyright E. Butterworth

I’M HERE in London today for the opening of an exhibition of recent paintings and drawings by Elizabeth Butterworth at the Redfern Gallery. Her gouaches and watercolours include parrots, birds of paradise and birds of prey but the centrepiece of the exhibition is a series of black wing drawings, each 3 or 4 feet long, drawn in contë crayon. They resonate with power, not so much because of their scale but because of the measured intensity of observation in them. In the present constitutional crisis, if an angel of judgement was to be seen perched on the crenellations of  the Palace of Westminster, it would have wings like these.


On a more intimate and inviting scale are her studies; I put on my reading glasses for a closer look at these. My drawing journaler friend Roz Stehndahl has said that she makes great efforts, when drawing birds, to observe the connection between beak and feathery head - she sees this as crucial to understanding the character of a bird, which betrays its reptilian ancestry in such details. This area receives intense observation in Butterworth’s studies with careful drawings, colour swatches and written notes. Details like the suborbital rings (around the eye) are subjected to similar scrutiny.


I first met Elizabeth Butterworth when we were students at the Royal College of Art, she in painting, myself in natural history illustration. I was curious to catch up on her work and to see - as happens with some artists - whether the palette she uses has changed over the years. To judge by the swatches and colour notes her palette is as wide-ranging as ever in her search for the precise colour of plumage. She’ll test the watercolour or guoache ranges of several manufacturer’s to match the intense blue of a parrot’s feather or the cinnamon brown of a buzzard.

First Flight


But the assured tonal control in the black wings bring her full circle because, when I first met her, she was working a series of etchings in which soft, feathery wings were sometimes paired with shiny metallic jet engines. After 30 years, her work has lost none of its power.


In one corner there’s an elegant study of three feathers from a Lear’s Macaw. If they ever discover a new, related species it should be named Butterworth’s Macaw. Working in the same tradition, she’s a worthy successor to Edward Lear.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo - Calyptorhynchus funereus
Gouache on paper 71.1 x 53.3 cm, by Elizabeth Butterworth reproduced from the invitation to the Redfern Gallery exhibition.


Roz Stendahl

Redfern Gallery

Detail from one of my student sketchbooks, Tuesday 14th January 1975; drawing Liz’s two scarlet and gold macaws, Lou and Oscar:

“Delightful birds. As soon as I’d walked in Lou waddled towards me and took the toe of my shoe in his beak. Then Oscar came along and there was an arguement as to who was entitled to bite my toe which was solved by them tackling a foot each. But they’re not allowed to try and pull visitors to pieces so they found other things to do. Lou found a tiny hole in the carpet and stuck his beak through that. They’re remarkably expressive in faces & gestures. Looking for the next thing they can do.”