Podcast – Kate McGwire and Sarah Stone’s Watercolour Birds

By 6th March 2021Blog
Mandarin Duck, 1788 by Sarah Stone

Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata, Sarah Stone, 1788. NHM Picture LIbrary Ref 024290. [Fair use for review purposes.]

The Art Fund podcast ‘Art and Stuff’ for 21 January 2021, featured Sarah Stone (c. 1760 – 1844) an illustrator and painter.  She specialised in natural history and scientific illustration. Stone was successful in her own lifetime, remarkable for a woman at the time. Stone was invited to show at the Royal Academy as an ‘Honorary Exhibitor’. She was commissioned in the 1770s to illustrate items in Sir Arthur Ashton Lever’s collection, which included exotic specimens such as those collected by Captain James Cook. Stone’s work is precise, detailed and beautiful. Some of the exact details necessarily suffer a bit because she was working from skins and taxidermy, but her work faithfully reproduces some now-extinct animals and is a valuable historical record for biodiversity.

Kate McGwire (b. 1964) is a British abstract sculptor who works primarily with the feathers of native British birds. She discusses on the podcast how a single feather being out of place would negatively impact both her own and Stone’s work. But apart from a keenness of observation and skillful technique, the similarity in their art ends there. McGwire’s sculptures are non-representational, sinuous, reptilian and intentionally creepy. McGwire says, “I suppose the contrast between our work is that [Stone] was being paid to do a recording job, which she obviously loved and did with great skill. I’m in a different position, and I make work that taps into those things we already know, but subverts them in some way to make us feel something else, something uncomfortable.”

That contrast, between a blatantly commercial contract and the freedom to produce work of your own, neatly sums up the dilemma of a modern artist. Making enough money to live on vs. making “Art”, with a capital A. It helps for your work to be beautiful to be accepted, but I think it’s a shame that many feel it also needs to be subversive.

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