TO CAPTURE A DETAILED IMAGE of a hawk attacking a bird in mid-air using photography would require a decent camera with a good lens and a high shutter speed. Yet, in about 1832 – long before cameras with high shutter speeds existed – the painter Edward Landseer (1802-1873) depicted a hawk attacking another bird high above the ground. He did not use photography. He created his picture on canvas with his paintbrushes and oil paints. His painting, “Hawking in the Olden Time”, hand in north London’s Kenwood House where I saw it today, the 11th of April 2023.
Clearly, Landseer’s image is a painting, but it contains as much detail as a reasonably good photograph. It must have taken him very much longer to execute than the fraction of a second that the event – the attack, which he captured on canvas, lasted in real life. Was his visual memory so good that he was able to hold a detailed memory of that instant in his head whilst he painted it? Although I doubt it, that possibility cannot be ruled out.
As I stood in front of the picture, pondering about it, another theory entered my head. During the nineteenth century, the art of taxidermy had reached a high degree of development. For example, the British ornithologist John Hancock (1808-1890) was an accomplished taxidermist. One of his works, “The Struggle with the Quarry”, which is in the Hancock Museum (in Newcastle upon Tyne) consists of one stuffed bird attacking another, and at first glance makes one think of Landseer’s painting. Although this was created after Landseer made his painting, the art of taxidermy had already begun to be perfected by taxidermists such as Louis Dufresne (1752-1832). So, when I was standing in front of the painting at Kenwood and thinking that Landseer might well have used a work of taxidermy as a model for his picture, I might not have been mistaken.
Kenwood House contains one of London’s best collections of old master paintings outside the city’s major public art galleries. Each time I visit it, I discover something that I had not noticed before. I am sure that I had seen the painting by Landseer, but it was not until today that I gave it more than a passing glance. Today, while walking around the house with some friends who had never been there before, we stopped in front of the painting of mid-air carnage and wondered how this image had been created before modern photography had been invented. Maybe, what I have written provides the answer.