Jonathan Sainsbury paints the birds we see around us. It started in childhood when he went to stay with a shooting farmer.
Jonathan Sainsbury paints birds beautifully. They are his speciality, just as horseflesh is the chosen subject for Sir Alfred Munnings and Africa treads realistically accross the canvas of David Shepherd.
Jonathan Sainsbury’s work makes me realise how lucky I am that the cherry tree outside my window has died. A wren now picks among the moss at its base; a tree creeper patrols the trunk for insects; twittering flocks of long-tailed tits and goldfinches are busy among the lichen-covered upper twigs. It’s a scene straight from one of Jonathan Sainsbury’s paintings.
Laughing, Jonathan Sainsbury agrees: “Where I live in Perthshire everything is damp and wet, so you get dead wood. We have an oak tree that must be about 300 years old and the bottom branches have died. It gives me a lot of inspiration and I have done a whole series of paintings of branches.” The branches and bramble bushes he paints feature birds like the long-tailed tits – “bumbarrels” as the poet John Clare calls them – or just starlings. You won’t see macaws or hoopoes suddenly brightening the humdrum beauty of his pictures. “I think one of the appeals of my work is that everything I do is familiar,” explains Sainsbury. “I am interested in what is around us, what makes us and completes us. And they are part of our experience. I like that. I try to show a lot of that in my work. For example, with the bumbarrels painting, where it is divided into nine separate panels, I wanted to emphasise the fragmentary view you see of them through binoculars as they flutter about, first three coming in, then one going out, constantly busy.”
By coincidence, it is exactly the view I get of the long-tailed tits through my window. This ability to recognise the essential joys we all see helped Jonathan Sainsbury to get started as a professional artist. He remembers: “My first clients were farmers. It was the time of subsidies, so they had some spare cash. If I painted a yellowhammer, a farmer would say, ‘Yes, I saw one just like that the other day when I was haymaking,’ and he would buy the painting.
“The farmers I knew in those days were really hands-on, where today everything is mechanised and contracted out, so that farming has become almost disconnected. It is easy for a young lad to be sitting on his tractor with the earphones on all day with almost no awareness of the countryside around him. I think there is a kind of loss going on at the moment.” Sometimes that loss is more dramatic, as in the off-shore oil spill disasters that happen on our coasts. Sainsbury remembers two in particular, both in the Nineties: “The Braer went down off Shetland and there was an oil spill, then soon afterwards, the Sea Empress grounded and about 6,000 scoters got killed.
“I remember looking at them, and with the oil you get that rainbow effect. You can reproduce that with acrylic paint and, of course, acrylic paint is a by-product of the petrochemical industry that had caused the disaster in the first place.” The irony was not lost on Jonathan Sainsbury, whose moving painting, Reciprocal Arrangement, commemorates the disaster. “The painting was exhibited in Wisconsin at an annual exhibition, Birds in Art, which is basically the most prestigious exhibition for bird painters globally. These are the pictures I care about.”
While Jonathan Sainsbury was still at Leeds College of Art in the Seventies, he was already using his work as a concrete expression of his environmental concerns – literally so in some cases: “I made a piece called Tiger Bricks, which was bricks painted in tiger stripes and weighed 365lb, the exact weight of the Javanese tiger, which had recently become extinct.”
From the beginning though, birds captured Sainsbury’s imagination: “It all started when I was about eight years old and went to stay on a farm. I went out with the farmer while he shot a couple of brace of English grey partridge. They were laying on the kitchen table and I was fascinated by them, they are such beautiful birds. The farmer’s wife suggested I painted them, and that fired me from then onwards.”
And thinking again of that dead tree so full of life outside my window, I realise how lucky we are to have Jonathan Sainsbury to help us see it.