Laura Gascoigne

Call of the wild

‘Not something I’d want on my wall,’ said an English lady visitor to Antwerp’s Rockox House, standing in front of a painting of wolves attacking cattle.

Call of the wild
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‘Not something I’d want on my wall,’ said an English lady visitor to Antwerp’s Rockox House, standing in front of a painting of wolves attacking cattle.

‘Not something I’d want on my wall,’ said an English lady visitor to Antwerp’s Rockox House, standing in front of a painting of wolves attacking cattle. ‘Nor that,’ said her friend of another painting showing lions feasting on a live gazelle. I didn’t dare tell them that I’d come to Belgium specially to see a whole exhibition of paintings by the artist responsible, Roelandt Savery (1576–1639), in his native Kortrijk.

‘Kortrijk where? Roelandt who?’ you may be asking. If Savery’s name rings a bell, chances are it’s less for his contribution to painting in general than for his contribution to painting dodos in particular, ten of which, by appearing in his pictures, have helped preserve his name from extinction. But if you go to Kortrijk — a quiet, charmingly untouristy former linen town just across the border from Lille — on a hunt for dodos, you’ll be disappointed. Leaving out the exhibition’s fake stuffed specimen, the dodo count in this display of 40 works — which comes to Kortrijk’s Broelmuseum from the Národní Gallery in Prague — is one. And besides, the curators informed me, the bird was dead.

By the time Savery painted ‘Orpheus Playing to the Animals in a Landscape’ in Prague in 1611, the singleton dodo that appears in this picture — assuming it had survived the trip from Mauritius to Emperor Rudolph II’s aviary — was almost certainly stuffed. But in the ten years Savery spent as a painter at the Prague court he had plenty of opportunity to draw other exotic species. The imperial menagerie at Prague Castle included a lions’ courtyard, a birds’ courtyard and a game park roamed by camels and cheetahs. It was an advantage he exploited for the rest of his life.

Savery’s original invitation to Prague in 1603 may have had less to do with his skill as an animal painter than with his ability, shared with his forger brother Jacob, to knock out a stonking good Breugelian kermesse. But Rudolf had got himself a bargain in the young Flemish artist. With the pick of the imperial gardens at his disposal, Savery soon blossomed as a precocious flower painter: his exquisite panel of ‘Flowers in a Roemer’ (1603) is the earliest Netherlandish example of the genre. He also broke dramatic new ground in landscape, largely thanks to Rudolf’s inspired initiative in sending him off in 1606 to record ‘rare wonders of nature’ in the Tyrol. The extraordinary sketches of rocky ravines, tumbling Alpine waterfalls and perilously clinging vegetation he returned with — several of them later snapped up by Rembrandt — are unfortunately too fragile to travel, but a spot-on observation of ‘A Great Pine Tree’ in a vivid mix of ink, crayon and wash gives a taste of what we’re missing.

The Tyrolean trip turned Savery, a couple of centuries before his time, into a proto-Romantic landscape artist. Already in his sketches of backstreet Prague he had shown a predilection for dilapidated buildings. Now he dotted his Alpine landscapes with crumbling castles and ruined rotundas and revelled in the romance of natural decay, littering his forest floors with twisted tree roots, broken stumps and fallen trunks. His wooded landscapes, with their deeply shaded brown foregrounds, dreamy blue distances and silvery middle-grounds typically spotlit by shafts of sunlight breaking through cloud are quintessentially, even formatively northern — but their fauna come from all four (then) known continents.

Part of the charm of his animal paintings lies in their smallness. You have to hunt for the animals and, in the process, discover surprises like the monkeys and cockatoo in a ‘Landscape with Stags’ (1609) or the herd of camels queuing for a ‘Forest Spring’ (1616). Savery didn’t need narrative pretexts for introducing exotica; his ‘Landscape with Birds’ (1622) is a twitcher’s paradise featuring 22 species, from a Dalmatian pelican and an Indian peafowl to a domestic chicken. The human story, where there is one, is peripheral. You have to squint into the distance to find Adam, Noah or Orpheus; in reproduction, you need a magnifying glass.

Savery’s obituary portrait bears a strong resemblance to Oliver Reed. His bachelor regime in Utrecht, where he settled comfortably in 1618, was apparently to paint in the mornings and drink in the afternoons, until an unscrupulous nephew-in-law discovered that the convivial artist ‘during drinking could easily be brought to the signing of one thing or another’, as later reported in court, and brought him to bankruptcy. The following year, 1639, he died. The epitaph inscribed under his portrait imagines ‘the souls in the Elysian fields’ welcoming Savery’s arrival ‘to adorn their realm with various animals, wild forests and lovely flowers’. Bloodthirsty scenes such as offended the English ladies were presumably reserved for the souls in torment.