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The Birdman of Wivenhoe

PUBLISHED: 11:14 13 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

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At 70 years of age, Wivenhoe bird sculptor Guy Taplin continues to carve up a storm. Ian Collins celebrates the landmark anniversary of this unique Essex artist

DOWN the eastern edge of England, winter migration has brought huge flocks of waders and waterfowl from Scandinavia and the Arctic Circle as well as swans from Iceland and Siberia. Out on the Essex marshes the spectacle and spirit of these avian visitors has been carved in stupendous flights and stands by Britain's premier bird sculptor, Guy Taplin.

Deeper yet, these creations of elemental creatures, breathe new life into salvaged wood with an eerie earlier existence. They suggest the wildness we perhaps yearn for in our tamed lives and the wilderness where the artist works and wanders.


The Bird Man
A landmark exhibition in London - the biggest assembly of such evocative work to date - is a celebration of both the art and the artist as 2009 sees the wild Mr Taplin's 70th birthday.

Although we have a new sighting of an artist very much in mid-career, it is now 30 years since a Cockney jack-of-all-trades turned Bird Man of Regent's Park narrowly avoided a calling as a Buddhist monk and began to fledge as a sculptor.

The keeper of the Royal parks' premier ornamental waterfowl collection first whittled on a whim a crude decoy-like model of one of his charges out of a piece of driftwood rescued from Thames mud. Repetition and obsession - and the transformation of forests of discarded timber including chopped-up telegraph poles to chucked-out theatre seats and sculling boats - made perfect as an untrained craftsman evolved into an unmatched artist.

At times there appears precious little method in his creative madness. Asked for guidance on how to make a duck from wood he has replied in all honesty, 'Well, you get a piece of wood and you chop off everything that don't look like a duck'.

Nervy souls have had nightmares after spying the sculptor approaching his most fragile masterpieces with a mallet, having somehow spirited them into life with an electric bandsaw, blowtorch, rasps and sanders, paintbrushes and scrubbing brushes, dabs of pigment and a great deal of rough handling.

Some of his best creations seem to have been liberated from sunken ships or caves or burial chambers, and then arrested on the brink of erosion and extinction

'The early things I made were attractive and had a lot of energy, but they were crude in a way,' explains Guy. 'Through sheer force of repetition your eye develops and you are able to get the length, width and depth of the bird correct very quickly. And then you find you've added the feeling of movement and the spirit as well. These days I can surprise myself with the things I do.'

His flock of fans includes Michael Palin who owns typical Taplinesque birds and a singular Guy Taplin. That's the name writ large on a jaunty model fishing vessel on whose deck stand two figures in a pose the former Monty Python star associates with, 'old British underwear catalogues, pipes clamped reassuringly in jaws as if they were modelling a new range of ocean-going vests and long johns'.


Capture of movement
Michael adds: 'Guy's great skill is that his work doesn't tell you everything. The confidence of his modelling, the elegance of line, the capture of movement goes so far and then lets you do the rest.
'Guy has told me of his admiration for Alfred Wallis, another self-taught artist who drew inspiration from the sea. Wallis is generally classed as a primitive. I don't know if Guy is in the slightest bit interested in art labels.

All I'd say is that if an artist can with so little fuss and such great assurance transport me and my home into the sky or onto the sea I wouldn't call him a primitive; I'd call him a magician.'

In this anniversary exhibition a six-foot panel of an old east coast tender has been transformed into a flank of white whale over which tiny sanderling flit and skim, while further groups of waders have been formed from salvaged russet hatch covers and the yellow-painted front of a beach-combed mahogany chest of drawers.

Other stands display the bleached blue of boat fragments which are the artist's favourite souvenirs from frequent visits to a bird reserve in the Algarve where Atlantic storms and currents have created a haven for smashed and splintered vessels - debris awaiting rebirth.

In fact, sharp as a heron, Guy has stalked ocean edges and estuaries
from Africa to America, fishing for the raw materials of his art and then lugging home bright cargoes like
a giant magpie.

But his greatest hunting ground remains coastal Essex; whether on the sandbanks and the mudflats where at night, from the sail-loft workshop beside his Wivenhoe sea captain's cottage, he can hear the curlews calling or on the shore barely below his studio in a pre-war holiday chalet which the tide sometimes maroons in a saline lake stretching for as far as
the eye can see.

Most especially in winter, birds are his friends and neighbours. Here, perfectly at home on the edge of everything, are certainly to be found the oystercatcher, the turnstone and the Taplin. And then those strange cries, flutterings and shadows on a darkening afternoon just might be the ghost of a great auk or an albatross.

Nature writer Richard Mabey says: 'Being a bit of a beachcomber myself, I often expect to come across a fully-fledged Guy Taplin caught in the flotsam, tangled in the fish-egg-cases and old feathers, hatched and shiny. His pieces always have that sense of being wave-shaped and wind-honed themselves.'

But besides his enigmatic and emblematic birds, this caller of
the wild has also long maintained (though rarely exhibited) a fascination for capturing the human form far beyond the crewmen of that Palin boat.
Variously tense, comic and erotic - suggesting modern models, dancers, fighters and ancient fertility symbols - lithe figures now loom large and haunting. They too seem poised for take-off.


Catch the bird man


Guy Taplin's work is on show at Messum's in London. An exhibition by Essex-based boat painter James Dodds also runs until March 14. Ian Collins is the author of Bird on
a Wire: The Life and Art of Guy Taplin (Studio Publications, £29.95).
It can be ordered post-free. Make cheques payable to Messum's at 8 Cork Street, London W1S 3LJ 020 7437 5545 or visit the website at
www.messums.com

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