Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

IN our hallway hang two large frames each displaying several photographs of children’s artwork from West Riding schools collected about 30+ years ago. The works were in a number of different media – pastel, watercolour, fabric collage etc. – but they all depict wild creatures or plants, and they all indicate how carefully the young artists had studied their subjects and appreciated the essential character of what they were scrutinising. There’s a portrait of a red squirrel, sitting upright, tail curled, and so elegant. You feel, if it had a china teacup in its paw – its little finger would be raised! There are several badger portraits. Many years ago when I worked in Bradford schools I often encountered that badger – a rather shabby, stuffed animal lent to schools by the Museum Service in Wakefield.

It may have seen better days but it enabled those young artists to realise how small the white head with its bold black stripes is in relation to its bulky body, a body not black but grey. Individual badger hairs are striped light then dark then light to give this shadowy effect: the children had captured exactly – the youngest with the selection of a greyish tweed, the older children with paint, skilfully mixed and applied. And they appreciated the blackness of the belly and legs and those long, curved claws.

I wish I’d been taught to look. If only, as I busily coloured in thick brown trunks and green lollipop tops, someone had said, “Let’s go outside and look at trees”. Then I’d have seen trunks, silky grey (beech), gnarled and fissured elephant skin (hawthorn), the collage of browns, pinks, greys of mature sycamore, and learned how each species grew its branches in a different way making a different shape. I had to learn the hard way – over many years. I appreciate it all now – especially when the bare trees are lit by low wintry sun.

I was reminded of all this last week when our garden hosted a startling visitor – an over-wintering male blackcap. What a dandy! He’s quite a chunky bird, the size of a robin, his back the clear grey of men’s top hats at posh weddings, his breast a paler grey and, then that black cap: not the reflective black of great tits’ heads or the iridescent black of lapwings, but the colour of fresh soot, matt, inky black. His understated elegance made bullfinch, goldfinch and blue tit look rather flashy!