Birds of a Feather

George Frederic Watts, The Wounded Heron, 1837, oil on canvas (Watts Gallery Trust)

On a guided tour of the George Watts Gallery, near Guildford recently, I was surprised to learn about the Victorian artist’s ‘protest pictures’.

Born when our own Percy Shelley was at the height of his powers writing his controversial poems of protest, I felt the two would have got on well, with their artistic commentaries on the ruthlessness of the governments of their day.

One painting which felt particularly poignant was called, ‘A Dedication (to all those who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty)’.  It depicts an angel weeping over an altar littered with kingfishers and other small birds.

It was painted at a time when egrets, spoonbills and cranes were extinct in the UK and feathers were high fashion for ladies’ hats.  Watts’, ‘Wounded Heron’, painted when he was only 20, criticises this needless killing of birds for sport and fashion.  When middle-class English ladies became engaged with this type of protest, Emily Williamson founded the Plumage League which is now the RSPB, one of our best-loved charities, protecting the habitat of birds and other species around the UK.  Parliament was successfully petitioned to change laws to ban plumage imports in 1921.

Fashion is still a killer and we have clout.  Choose ethical labels if you buy new.  Choose UK made if you can.  Barbour, for example, decided to keep all its factories in the UK rather than move them overseas.

If you’re already loving the huge choice of second-hand clothes available, then it’s possible to get quality for less, and when we buy quality, we don’t need to buy so often. (HERE we have a list of our favourite apps for buying second and clothes)

Fashion to die for? Hopefully not any longer.  We rarely see fur and feathers now. We are again seeing egrets and spoonbills, cranes and even storks returning to our shores and skies.

It seems these days we look to celebrities to lead the way – Katharine Hamnett and Stella McCartney for fashion with a message, Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford pioneering the cause of healthy school dinners for children, and Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham leading the way with regard to protecting nature.

We are all involved now.  The RSPB is one of around forty charities and organisations coming together for “Urgent Conversation” calling on us to urge our MPs to provide money and resources to protect our much-depleted wildlife immediately.

by Morag Warrack





Article first appeared in the West Sussex County Times