Tony Ladd, Naturalistic Creations
In 1844 on the island of Eldey, a small sea stack 13 miles from the Icelandic mainland, the last two Great Auks met their fate.
Two brothers, who were fisherman by trade, had been paid by a Danish dealer to collect any specimens or eggs. The ‘bounty’ could attain handsome profits, satisfying the passion among gentleman natural history collectors. The two remaining birds tried desperately to disguise themselves and mingle within the vast seabird colonies that also nested on the island. Once spotted though, the Auks were doomed. The brothers quickly administered the fatal blows, unknowingly putting an end to this legendary species.
Though clumsy and comical on land, The Great Auk was an acrobat in water. Under the ocean the sculpted dagger bill led the torpedo-like body through the water. For propulsion the Auk had large webbed feet set well back. This gave the bird its tremendous turn of speed, perfect for twisting seal-like through the currents, seizing its prey with its beautifully designed beak. Closely related to the guillemot and razorbill of today, the Auk bears more resemblance to the penguin, with its small flightless wings evolved to steer the large bulky body beneath the waves with amazing agility.
As little as 500 years ago there were millions of these birds breeding successfully in vast colonies situated in the northern hemisphere. The birds would spend ten months of the year at sea, only needing solid ground for the purpose of attracting a mate, with whom they’d pair for life, and rearing their single chick. The single large egg was incubated by both parents. The egg had a pointed pear-shaped appearance, designed to roll in a tight turning circle, should it become dislodged from its craggy backdrop. Being flightless, the choice of island needed to be flat and accommodating, making for an easy approach. These far flung places had no natural predators and life was good.
During the 16th Century, voyages to discover the New World meant that tired, starving ships’ crews passed close by these bustling plateaus. Landing parties soon discovered the abundance of a readily available food source, easy to catch, a survival godsend! The birds put up little defence and provided dietary protein and oils for candlelight. Almost overnight these supreme predators had turned prey. A threat that evolution had not prepared them for.
The killing for food was just the start of its troubles. Man soon realised that the Auks’ extra thick layer of waterproof down was a desirable alternative to that of the Eider duck and that the larger feathers made beautiful ladies’ hat decorations. Very soon, makeshift factories to harvest this natural bounty were set up on the Auk’s favoured islands and thousands of birds were corralled into holding pens for slaughter. Add to this the Victorian obsessive passion for collecting all things ‘Natural History’ and you have the formula for extinction. The Great Auk went the way of the dodo.
Tony Ladd is an experienced wildlife artist whose highly detailed work is grounded in his life-long interest in ornithology.
He works from an oak-framed wooden studio he built himself in his garden on the West Sussex coastline. He specialises in producing superb hand-painted casts of British birds’ eggs. These collections are highly sought after by collectors worldwide. “Each egg is an original piece of artwork,” he says, “I’m fascinated by the diverse colours, patterns, blotches and scribblings.”
“My journey into natural history began whilst growing up on my grandfather’s farm in Ditchling, Sussex. There I learnt the skill and techniques in order to study wildlife at close quarters. I have never forgotten the sawdust filled drawers my grandfather Bert kept full of birds’ eggs! He would let me see these only under strict supervision! It was a magical experience, they looked like gemstones, each one a different size and colour. A treasured possession, carefully numbered and labelled with hours of precious housekeeping. This memory triggered my desire to replicate egg filled cases, giving the opportunity for nature lovers to possess their own bespoke collections.”
Twenty years ago the old collections fell out of favour and were no longer desirable within modern society, and laws now prevent anyone even owning a real birds’ egg collection. However, through inclusion in interior design schemes, fashion styling, and the fact that some specimens can simply no longer be obtained (extinction), such collections have become a desirable art form, statement piece or collectable objet d’art.
“During research for the natural history artwork I produce, I met one of my absolute heroes, Errol Fuller. He has written many books on extinct species, including one on The Great Auk, which I read with enthusiasm from cover to cover. In the course of time we exchanged findings, resulting in an invite to view two of the remaining sixty-five Auk eggs in existence. They were extraordinary, very large for the size of bird and covered in an array of blotches, scribbles and brush-like strokes. We then carefully went about measuring and documenting the eggs in a series of photographs taken through varying degrees. This now gave me the most accurate data possible to produce my replica specimens!”
Tony adds, “I have been on a year-long mission to make sure my replica eggs of the Auk are as accurate as possible, both in size, weight, and patterned detail.”
As natural history becomes more and more popular with the advent of superb nature programmes and preservation awareness, artwork with animal themes is very much in vogue as it filters through into mainstream decorative and lifestyle schemes. Shown here are some examples which have caused a stir with collectors across the globe.
“My work is now very popular… which has resulted in me painting my collections full time!”