The bird man of Wivenhoe

There is something quite satisfying to see how the materials for Guy Taplin’s bird sculptures have been reclaimed from the battered remains of shattered boats and fallen trees.

Working with reclaimed wood makes him the epitome of the green artist, using recycled materials, to create sculptures which celebrate the beauty of the natural world.

His beautiful wild fowl, with their elegant, arched necks and swept back wings are spectacular pieces of work which conjure up the unspoilt nature of the East Anglian coastline. But they are more than simple bird sculptures. He plays with shape and design. He is aware of spacial dynamics and his sculptures create interesting shapes and designs and can almost be viewed as an abstract construction instead of a flock of birds feeding or in flight.

Looking at his work, it comes as no surprise that Guy Taplin is a man who remains in love with his subjects – the waders and sea birds to be found foraging for food in our local waterways. Guy, who was originally born in the East End of London, first stumbled upon a brief burst of fame during the Swinging Sixties when he was celebrated for creating ornate, highly sort-after belt buckles.

He reacted against his celebrity status by dropping out, drifted through a series of menial jobs, before deciding to train as a Buddhist monk. He gained fame in the early 70s as the Bird Man of Regents Park and when instructed to cull the booming Canada Geese population, arranged with Paul and Linda McCartney to have the hapless birds flown to safety on McCartney’s property on the Mull of Kintyre.


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Today Guy can be spotted picking his way across the shoreline at Wivenhoe enjoying the scenery, the bird life and keeping an eye out for any interesting pieces of wood which can be transformed into a flock of flamingoes, or a elegant egret or a clutch of oyster catchers.

His on-going search for weathered wood and the fractured remains of boats also sees him jetting off to foreign climes where he arranges for the shattered hulls of wooden vessels to be delivered to him in Britain to be recycled and remade into beautiful sculptures which continue the material’s association with rivers and the sea.

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He tours such exotic locales as Zanzibar, Kerala, California, the Carolinas, southern Portugal and Egypt in search of interesting types of wood and tangled wreckage. Guy knows the different kinds of wood by touch and sight, and he can tell at a glance how each found fragment may be fitted to his peculiar purpose of just left for others to salvage for kindling.

One bit could make a stylised neck, another a body. Graining may suggest feathering. Flaws from previous use and weathering could be worked into a rough and ready design which somehow takes flight in the process of creation.

Pieces of metal are also prized: perhaps a curl of copper will make a tufted duck’s crest, a stair-rod a heron’s leg, a can lid a plover’s wing. The bloom of old metal rusting through peeling paint adds to the impression of antiquity in a 21st century creation which is the pinnacle of the art of recycling. Strangely for an artist with such a sure touch and years of experience creating beautiful birds out of the most unlikely materials he maintains that he has no great woodworking skills. His tools are basic, his techniques minimal. How to make a Taplinesque duck? “Well, you get a piece of wood and you chop everything off that don’t look like a duck,” he explains, helpfully. And he’s not joking. With no early ambitions in art and no aptitude for woodwork, he is entirely untrained as a sculptor.

But, the proof of his talent is in the finished piece of work and in the fact that top London Gallery Messum’s in Cork Street, the heart of art land in the Metropolis, has been a long-term supporter of his work.

In fact Guy Taplin has a number of influentialfans and collectors. Former Monty Python star and world traveller Michael Palin has a number pieces of Guy Taplin’s work dotted around his home. He says that for him Guy Taplin is a magician or an alchemist – turning pieces of discarded wood into elegant flights of birds.

“Guy’s great skill is that his work doesn’t tell you everything. The confidence of his modelling, the elegance of line, the capture of movement goes so far and then lets you do the rest.”

Nervy souls have quaked to see the sculptor finishing his most fragile masterpieces with a mallet, having somehow conjured them up with the help of an electric bandsaw, blow-torch and sanders then adding that final toudch with the help of paintbrushes, scrubbing brushes, dabs of pigment and much rough handling.

Michael Palin adds in a foreword to Ian Collins’ book on Guy Taplin, Bird On A Wire: “Guy has told me of his admiration for Alfred Wallis, another self-taught artist who drew inspiration from the sea. Wallis is generally classed as a primitive. I don’t know if Guy is in the slightest bit interested in art labels. All I’d say is that if an artist can with so little fuss and such great assurance transport me and my home into the sky or onto the sea I wouldn’t call him a primitive; I’d call him a magician.”

It comes as no surprise to discover that Guy lives and works in an old sea captain’s cottage overlooking Wivenhoe Quay His workshop is sequestered in an old sail-makers loft. What is more remarkable that this lover of nature and coastal life is the product of a freewheeling, runaway childhood in London’s EastEnd.

He describes his family as a strange collection of eccentrics and misfits. His ancestors included a pig-tailed Chinaman and a grandmother who was bridesmaid at the first of Marie Lloyd’s weddings. There was something exotic about even his humblest forebears. His family originally lived in Nile Street, Hoxton, so consequently he always said they came from The Nile.

Guy, himself a product of the city, learned to love the countryside during war-time evacuation to Herefordshire, and then by roaming the woods and hedgerows around Epping. He was forever fascinated by birds, initially as a fanatical egg collector. After leaving school he lurched from career to career – going from Post Office messenger, meat porter, street trader and lifeguard to hairdresser, cook and gardener.

But it was while he was retreating from the world during his tenure as the Birdman of Regents Park that he discovered his affinity with wood. Almost on a whim, he took a piece of driftwood from the Thames foreshore and then, using only an axe, spoke shave, sandpaper and basic paints, he began to carve a crude copy of a mallard drake based on the antique decoy ducks he had admired on Camden market.

By his own admission his first efforts were almost laughable. But through determination and repetition he advanced his craft as he worked his way through a mountain of disused telegraph poles, railway sleepers, glasshouse frames, theatrical props and sculling boats.

The salvage element of his work gave his work an added value, providing a link between the materials and bird-life he was portraying. As he became more proficient and more confident in his new calling, Guy took over a warehouse workshop on the then near-derelict Butler’s Wharf.

Sandwiched between studios occupied by Derek Jarman and the Logan brothers, his rapidly-improving work began to be widely seen – and bought by architects, actors, directors and designers. In fact across the pond Jackie Onassis snapped up two life-size swans from the window of a Nantucket art gallery for what was then the colossal sum of $20,000.

By the time of the Onassis purchase Guy was established with his young family in Wivenhoe, a artistic community which had its Bohemian credentials validated by frequent visits by the artworld’s enfant terrible Francis Bacon.

Working in a pre-war chalet far out on the Essex salt-marshes he regularly found himself marooned by the rising tides.

Long since bypassing the original decoy-style, his aviary of wooden bird-life now ranges from wrens to eagles and from single birds to superb assemblies. A duck may be caught preying on a frog, while an owl tempts fat owlets with a shrew. A pair of kingfishers hovers jewel-like over grey fledglings in a bank burrow.

Movement is everywhere signalled – from a preening curlew whose bill brushes a wing to a party of sanderlings sweeping over a fragment of salvaged boat. His flights and stands of birds are ever-more elegant and lyrical, with godwits and egrets now limbering up like prima ballerinas.

Simplification and distortion suit Taplin’s aims – a bill or neck may be stretched improbably thin as a single feature represents an entire figure, or else a body is extended into a lithe question mark. And that may be the most fitting form of all. For there remains an air of mystery in the art and the artist

Guy says: “You need to go into yourself and to plumb the depths. But by doing that you are acting in some way like a shaman or magic man, connecting with the deepest feelings of people.

“My birds are like those pebbles you found on a beach as a child, which you put in your pocket and meant to keep forever. They are touchstones to the human heart.”

Ronald Blythe, another vocal supporter believes that Guy Taplin is one of the luckiest men on Earth. “It must be wonderful to be in that shed at Point Clear with the sea offering up its materials and the gulls shouting, “make me!” “make me!”

“Guy Taplin is the poet-artist-orthinologist of the shoreline. His birds begin as ships, become wreckage, take his inspiration, then fly – or wade – away. He breathes life into driftwood.”

A sentiment echoed by the late sculptor Elizabeth Frink who said of Guy’s work: “They are not static but full of movement and the spirit of the bird.”

Nature writer Richard Mabey said: “His pieces always have that sense of being wave-shaped and wind-honed themselves. I feel he is plugging into something ongoing, as well as adding his own grace notes. Putting it another way, if evolution had a strong sense of humour (it has) and was obliged to express the idea of birdishness in wood, these are the forms that might result.”

Guy Taplin’s latest exhibition is on show at Messum’s Gallery, Cork Street, London until March 5. The work can be viewed at www.messums.com

Ian Collins devotes a chapter to Guy Taplin in his new book Water Marks: Art in East Anglia, published by Black Dog Books at �30.

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