Environmental paintings

Jonathan Sainsbury - Dodo and Grenada doves

Image 1 of 4

Dodo and Grenada doves - watercolour - 28" x 28", exhibited Society of Animal Artists USA, private collection

From his childhood, Jonathan has been engaging with the environment and environmental issues. 

His student years were a time when DDT was widely used, bird populations were falling and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was published.  The number of creatures world-wide on the Endangered Species’ list grew, Carl Andre’s ‘Bricks’ were shown at the Tate Gallery in London.  Jonathan made a piece, subsequently lost, called ‘Tiger Bricks’, which was  a framed block of bricks, painted with tiger stripes, weighing exactly the same as a Balinese tiger, which had just been declared extinct.

In art college, Jonathan made pictures of extinct or threatened creatures.  He made animated light-boxes running on clockwork, showing painted scenes of English nature changing throughout the course of a day: the sun rose, crossed the sky, birds sang, swallows wheeled, the sun sank, the moon rose and different, nocturnal creatures emerged.

In the early 70s, Jonathan was employed in the Scenery Department of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.  He travelled to Japan with the company, encountering people still affected by the Atom bomb.  Later, he travelled in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, aided by the World Pheasant Association to sketch rare species in the wild.  These experiences shaped him.

An interest in conservation and environment remains a constant thread.  In ‘Logging Elephant’, he shows the working Indian elephant in her harness, rust from the chain staining her hide.  She is well-cared for, valued, but she is framed by tyre marks left by bulldozers of the machines threatening to replace her.  ‘The Stalking Pony’ – a native Highland breed – is shown in harness with a stag; a rainbow indicating God’s biblical promise that the balance of Nature and man will always be preserved.

Within his Square Series Jonathan juxtaposes endangered species as deliberate arrangements: Brown Hares and Corncrakes, Brown Hares and Skylarks, Bitterns and Water-voles, Capercaillie and Red Squirrels.  The combination of endangered Grenada doves and the Dodo, which was itself a pigeon, brings together extinct and nearly-extinct within the same family, to warn of what lies ahead.

As a field-artist, Jonathan uses real encounters for subject matter.  ‘Reciprocal Arrangement’ was his response to an oil spill.  He found dead oiled birds on the beach and a black tide-line .  Yet in order to show the pearlescence of the oil on the sand, he used an oil-based paint, indicating that we are all bound up in environmental impact, none of us stands outside it.

Zoos offer encounters with exotic creatures.  They are places for an artist to observe wildlife and to watch visitors.  ‘Gorilla’ is a portrait of a female in a zoo he visits.