Wildlife paintings and taxidermy up for sale in Aylsham auction

Taxidermy otter holding a fish in its mouth set in a naturalistic setting in a glass case

A taxidermy case of an otter and fish in a naturalistic setting, sold for £280 in Keys’ Ornithology and Natural History Sale in 2019 - Credit: Keys Fine Art Auctioneers

It is always fascinating to find out what unleashes the collecting bug in people.

Sometimes it is when they discover they love a certain artist, or porcelain from a particular factory, or jewellery from a particular era. On occasions there will be a personal or family link which triggers the desire to build a collection. At other times it’s pure serendipity – perhaps a few inherited items can be the spur to want to add more.

Often, though, collections start because of a particular interest or hobby. Those who are keen on sailing, for example, may like to reflect that passion by buying marine art to look at when they can’t be out on the water. Travel is often the trigger to start amassing pictures, books or artefacts which remind people of where their life has taken them.  

One of the more common pastimes which leads to collecting is a love of nature and in particular bird-watching – ornithological sales always get the saleroom buzzing.

Partly this is because ornithology is a very visual interest. Twitchers and birders generally get excited when they can see a bird of interest. And just like most enthusiasts, they like to be surrounded with things which reflect their hobby even when they are sat at home rather than in the hide.

We started an annual Ornithology and Natural History Sale at Keys in 2013, which has become one of our most popular auctions of the year. Amateur collectors, dealers and bird-watchers from around the UK will once again be heading for Aylsham at the beginning of next month for our ninth Ornithology and Natural History Sale.

It is a subject that encompasses the whole gamut of collectable items. As you would expect, paintings and pictures of birds are always popular, because it is a subject matter which allows for colour, grace and movement.

Taxidermy is also very popular, and it’s an area which has important roots in East Anglia. Three of the most eminent Victorian taxidermists were from Norfolk. Thomas Gunn – known as T.E. Gunn – was one of the finest practitioners who ever lived, a Norwich-based Victorian master.  

Gunn’s stuffed animals, and his birds in particular, are always in demand. He was at the vanguard of a group of local taxidermists with national reputations, including Lowne of Great Yarmouth and Lockwood of Fakenham.

Close-up painting of a falcon against a painted mountainous background by Archibald Thorburn

‘Gyrfalcon’ by Archibald Thorburn, painted in 1918, features in the forthcoming Keys Ornithology and Natural History Sale. It has a pre-sale estimate of £600-£800 - Credit: Keys Fine Art Auctioneers

Ornithologists are always keen to learn more about birds, and so books on the subject also form an important part of such sales. Interest in birds is nothing new – we see centuries-old publications on the subject, often illustrated with beautiful hand-coloured plates.

Wildlife art is always popular, and there have been some amazing practitioners across the years, from the pioneers who produced beautiful colour plates for early natural history publications right through to the stars of the present day such as Colin Burns.

Born in 1944, Burns started to paint landscapes and sunset at the age of seven. When he was 12 his parents moved to a Broadland farmhouse surrounded by abundant wildlife, something he later claimed to be the greatest artistic influence of his life.

At the age of 34 he finally gave up his day job as an accountant at Birds Eye and became a full-time artist. He is now highly collectable, especially his birds in flight paintings, in both oil and watercolour.

One star name from an earlier era is Archibald Thorburn. Born in Midlothian in 1860, he was commissioned to illustrate Lord Lilford's ‘Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles’ in 1887. He painted some 268 watercolours for the publication, and this established his reputation. His evocative watercolours of birds with their dramatic backgrounds are still very collectable today, and we have one of his pictures in the sale in October.

With pictures, books, taxidermy and other bird-related ephemera, the annual Ornithology and Natural History Sale will once again turn the eyes of the 
bird enthusiasts of Britain towards Norfolk. Given the county’s importance on the ornithological map, this is entirely appropriate.

Keys Ornithology and Natural History Sale takes place on Saturday, October 2 at their Aylsham salerooms and live on Keys’ online bidding platform KeysLive.

Entries can still be consigned to the sale.  For more details visit www.keysauctions.co.uk

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