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In our latest blog, Volunteer Gallery Steward Cheryl Bell, takes a closer look at Lucian Freud's drawing, Dead Bird, 1943 which is on long term loan to the gallery.

On my first day on the job as a volunteer gallery steward a visitor asked me what my favourite painting was in the gallery. I steered them to a long term loan, a small Lucian Freud pen and ink drawing of a dead bird. An odd choice, you might think, a dead bird, not a popular subject in art. But this is the most amazing drawing, delicate and beautiful; an homage to the fragility and lightness of all winged creatures.  

Lucian Freud had a thing about birds. He started drawing them as a child and his fascination continued in his early career; he actually kept a pair of sparrow hawks in his studio. Like many artists, he spent his formative years in the forties drawing; people, objects and especially animals. He loved Albrecht Durer and studied his magnificent watercolour and gouache bird drawings. Durer was one of the great ‘observers’ and Freud certainly followed in his footsteps. Durer’s detail of a bird wing (‘Left Wing of a Blue Roller’) is in my opinion the finest depiction ever of its kind.   

Birds would feature as a subject for Freud throughout his career. He drew Dead Bird when he shared a studio in London with John Craxton, and like most artists, couldn’t afford a model. During the war he was friendly with the daughter of a scientist who performed autopsies on birds, which Freud painted when staying with the family. Bizarrely, he also drew and painted dead monkeys, secretly obtaining them from zoos and pet shops. 

If you were to ask art lovers what works of Lucian Freud’s they were most familiar with, they would probably say his large oil portraits. Animals did feature in them; Freud owned several whippets which he painted often, but I didn’t know about his fascination with birds, or about his very beautiful and moving early drawings. As a wildlife artist I find them very inspirational.

 'I was always excited by birds. If you touch wild birds, it's a marvellous feeling' (Lucian Freud quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, London, 2002, p. 23).

Image: Clifford Coffin portrait, March 1947 for Vogue.