Object of the Month: The Wounded Heron

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Posted 11th May 2018

Object of the Month

Despite getting stuck into the rich and wonderful collection here at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, A Wounded Heron (1837) remains my favourite piece of G F Watts's work. It is also the first piece of work Watts' exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837.

After purchasing the bird from a poulterer's shop window to paint, Watts recounted being struck by the beauty of the dead creature. It too moves me in this way, with the dead heron splayed across the foreground in the style of a still-life and the piercing eye of the bird that appears to be looking directly at its viewer. The intensity of the heron's gaze draws us into its dying face. This and its prominent presence at the front of the painting, results in a highly emotive affect upon the onlooker that conveys the pathos of the scene. The composition may have been inspired by Edwin Henry Landseer's painting Hawking in the Olden Time (1832) which shows a falling heron being attacked.

The painting relates to an experience of Watts's in his youth. Accidentally crushing a pet bird as a boy was an incident that preyed upon the artist into his later life and must have made the study of the injured bird ever more poignant. This is impressed upon the viewer through the bird filing the foreground and seemingly staring straight at us.

Of course, the protection of birds continued to be an important theme throughout Watts' life with works such as: A Dedication: To all those who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty (1898-99), addressing the theme directly, by depicting an angel weeping over slaughtered birds. For Watts, cruelty to innocent birds illustrated a great evil, the despair of which is immensely felt in A Wounded Heron, and that also exerts upon the viewer such sorrow.

Emily Barrett
University of Sussex MA Placement Student