LAWRENCE STEIGRAD FINE ARTS

Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits

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 TRAJAN HUGHES (Welsh, born circa 1670)

A Puffin, Jay, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Bittern, Starling, Magpie, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, and a Barn Owl (or The Tale of Blodeuwedd)

signed Trajan Hughes in the lower center

oil on canvas

32 x 38 inches          (81.3 x 96.6 cm.)


PROVENANCE

Private Collection, New England

Rafael Valls Limited, London, 1996

Private Collection, Virginia, until the present time

LITERATURE

Christine E. Jackson, “Trajan Hughes” in Dictionary of Bird Artists of the World, Antique Collectors Club Ltd., Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1999, pp. 69, 300 (illustrated)

Lona Jones, “Who Was Trajan,” The National Library of Wales, on llgc.org.uk, 2013

Trajan Hughes is one of the earliest animal painters in Britain.  His works are extremely rare.  He was a contemporary of Francis Barlow, and painted similar subjects. Hughes also painted flowers and still lifes, but exceled with his animal subjects. They display a delightful simplicity with close attention to detail such as the plumage and features of birds, and which serve as a charming depiction of wildlife. His coloration is reminiscent of Dutch and Flemish old masters with blues and browns prevalent.

There is really nothing known about the artist’s life or career. In the International Genealogical Index for Wales, in the forename index, there are only two entries for Trajan in all of Wales. Both are for a Trajan Hughes. One refers to a baptism that occurred circa 1693 in Anglesley County (in all likelihood for the son of the painter). The other records a death in 1743 at Plas Llan Arowan. It is believed Hughes also worked in London. In the International Genealogical Index for London, there is a record of a marriage between Trajan Hughes and Elizabeth Churchman on June 18, 1691. A fascinating work by the artist from 1723, Still Life with Insects on Foxgloves, hangs in Down House (Downe, Orpington), the former home of Charles Darwin.[1]

At first glance one would assume that the subject of this painting, as suggested by Christine Jackson in her Dictionary of Bird Artists of the World, is “Mobbing the Owl.” This is a phenomenon that occurs in nature. The owl is a predator of smaller birds’ eggs as well as their young. When these birds spy an owl, they send up a call that is recognized by other species to join forces in harassing a common enemy. The mob then swarms around the owl, in the hopes of distracting it, and possibly driving it away.[2]

From the thirteenth century onwards, the subject of mobbing the owl regularly appeared in bestiaries, misericords, and roof bosses of medieval churches throughout England. Its meaning would have been quite clear. The bestiary described the significance of the owl and mobbing as “if other birds see it, they set up a great clamour, and it is vexed by their fierce onslaughts. So when a sinner is recognised in full daylight, he becomes an object of mockery for the righteous.”[3] Hughes’ contemporary, Francis Barlow, painted an owl attacked from all sides at the entrance to his nest, and described the scene in similar terms, as representing “a sinner attacked by the righteous”[4] (Ham House, Surrey, National Trust, inventory no. 1140159). One could naturally conclude that Hughes’ intent in this work is similar, and although they depict the same subject, due to pictorial cues in the painting, the scene in all likelihood references an earlier source.

The Mabinogion is a compendium of Welsh myths and legends first written down in the twelfth century. One of its tales is the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who had been cursed by his mother Arianrhod with the declaration that he would never wed a mortal woman. However, his uncle Gwydion was a magician who created a bride for his nephew from flowers. She was called Blodeuwedd, which meant flower face. They fell in love, married, and lived in a castle at Tomen y Mur (Gwynedd). One day when Lleu was away, a hunting party approached the castle, led by Gronw Pebyr the lord of nearby Penllyn (Vale of Glamorgan). After three days, Gronw and Blodeuwedd fell deeply in love, and planned to rid themselves of Lleu. A year later, the unfortunate husband was bathing along the banks of the river opposite Bryn Kyvergyr, when Gronw attacked him with a spear. As soon as the spear pierced his flesh, Lleu was transformed into an eagle, and flew into the forest. Gronw confiscated his castle, lands, and wife. Eventually, his uncle Gwydion was able to find Lleu, and change him back into a man. They formed a small army, and marched on the castle. Blodeuwedd fled with her maidens into the mountains, but her entourage was so frightened they could only walk uphill backwards which caused them to fall into the lake and drown. Blodeuwedd survived but was overtaken by Gwydion. As punishment he turned her into an owl saying “thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all the other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee.” Lleu slew Gronw along the riverbank of Gynvael in Ardudwy, and once more became the Lord over Gwynedd, living richly until the end of his days.[5]

Hughes has simultaneously infused this work with a sense of timelessness and hyperrealism, which divorces the action from nature. His Welsh heritage gives credence to the sourcing of the subject matter as the myth of Blodeuwedd, as do further visual symbols. The depicted owl sits on an ivy vine growing out of a dead tree stump. Tree stumps traditionally symbolized the cutting off of life. Due to the spiraling pattern of its growth, in Celtic lore, ivy was considered a tree of reincarnation, and eternal life.[6] Taken together, these symbols fuse to highlight the fate and punishment from which Blodeuwedd, as the trapped owl, can never escape. The action set on a riverbank, underlined by the dramatic placement of the water birds (puffin and bittern) in the left foreground, backed by mountains, further adhere to the guidelines of the tale.

Only time has obscured the subject of this work, one which would have been readily identifiable to Hughes’ audience.

 

 

[1] Biographical information taken from Ellis Waterhouse, “Trajan Hughes” in The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters, Antique Collector’s Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1981, p. 187; and Christine E. Jackson, op.cit., p. 300.

[2] Elizabeth P. Lawlor, Discover Nature at Sundown, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1995, p. 55; and Barry Kent MacKay, Bird Sounds, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2001, pp. 28-29.

[3] Dorothy Yamomoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 54, fn. 43; Desmond Morris, Owl, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 2009, pp. 168-170; and Richard Hayman, Church Misericords and Bench Ends, Shire Publications, 2011, unpaginated.

[4] Desmond Morris, op.cit., p. 170.

[5] Compilation of versions of the myth taken from Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion, Mediaeval Welsh Romances, Ballantyne Press, 1904, pp. 72-73, 75, 78-80; T. W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, Constable & Company Limited, London, 1911, pp. 383-384; Philip Wilkinson, Myths and Legends, DK Publishing, New York, 2009, p. 124; and “Blodeuwedd, Mabinogion in Welsh mythology” on www.welsh-mythsandlegends.walesdirectory.co.uk.

[6] C. Austin, “The Wisdom of Trees in the Celtic Landscape” on merganser.math.gvsu.edu/myth/trees.html.

 

 

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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