The Madness of a Collectorby Don Pinnock / 04.02.2013
Claude Gibney Finch-Davies was not a hero, though he did bear arms and fought a war of sorts. But there was something about what happened to him which is reminiscent of the trouble the warrior Achilles had with his heel. The Greek hero of Homer’s Iliad, you will recall, was dipped in the river Styx by his mother in order to make him invincible. To do this she had to hold him somewhere, so she chose his heel. By not coming in contact with the river of the dead, it remained vulnerable. It was in his heel that the fatal spear entered – thrust by Paris, whose abduction of Helen had started the Trojan War. Achilles crossed the Styx for good and Paris went on to find fame and fortune.
Finch-Davies, of course, was no mythical warrior. He was born in India in 1875 to Sir William and Lady Davies. While his mother didn’t literally dip him into anything, she did immerse him in natural history and her considerable knowledge of Indian snakes.
At the age of six young Claude was packed off to school in England, but wasn’t too good at it. At 18 he chucked in his studies and enrolled with Cape Mounted Riflemen in the Cape Colony. By the time the Anglo Boer War arrived, he had made it to corporal.
The warrior business didn’t really interest Davies, though he did end up with the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, the King’s and the Queen’s South Africa Medal, a Long Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, the 1914–15 Star, the British War Medal and a Victory Medal – all run-of-the-mill stuff as wars go.
More importantly, some time during the Anglo Boer War, he drew a bird.
Throughout that war Davies was stationed in the Eastern Cape and is known to have explored and hunted in Pondoland and East Griqualand. His notes mention Flagstaff, St Marks, Lusikisiki, Port St Johns, Matatiele, Imboitzi Lagoon and the Tugela Mountains.
Travel was by wagon or horse, so he had time to look around. His notes mention a Namaqua dove which he shot in the school grounds in Flagstaff, redcapped larks “scarcely taking the trouble to get out of the way of one’s horses,” and a brown-hooded kingfisher which often sat on the crosstree of the barrack flagstaff.
The first painting in his sketchbooks, of an Ethiopian snipe shot at Lusikisiki, is dated 4 August 1903. It is amateurish but displays a good grasp of draftsmanship and use of paint, indicating some earlier basic training in drawing and watercolour painting. These sketchbooks – there were to be 30 in all – consisted of 40 sheets, half bound and covered in canvas with a carrying strap at the end of each cover. In 1902 they cost a princely one shilling.
Soldiering soon became merely a means to an end. Davies shot, painted and ate his way through rameron pigeons (“delicious”), bitterns (“not bad eating”), yellow-billed ducks (“good sports and excellent eating”) and grey-winged francolins (“undoubtedly the best game species”). Each was painted with rapidly improving skill and sensitivity, with additional meticulous notes and observations penned on the back of every sketch.
By 1906 he had completed some 200 paintings in 10 volumes and, by then, his technique was so good he could make paintings of species with only the skin in his possession. A year later some of his work was published in the Journal of the South African Ornithologist’s Union.
Davies also sent skins to the British Museum where a previously undescribed olive sunbird subspecies was named after him: Cinnyris olivacceus daviesi. Fittingly, his painting of the bird was used to depict it in the museum’s Bird Room.
In 1908 Davies was admitted as a member of the British Ornithologist’s Union and was becoming recognised as an illustrator of international repute. He completed 69 illustrations for the authoritative Game Birds and Waterfowl of South Africa by Major Boyd Horsbrugh and was asked by the Dutchess of Bedford to paint the ducks in her collection of waterfowl. He was by then undoubtedly the finest avian illustrator in Southern Africa, if not the entire continent.
Around 1911 Davies began devoting his time to birds of prey, eventually filling seven books with finely observed portraits. To do this he drew on specimens seen or borrowed from the South African Museum in Cape Town, the King William’s Town Museum and the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. His links with the Transvaal Museum were the beginning of what was to become both a fruitful and, ultimately, a perilous relationship.
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War Davies was involved in the campaign to occupy German South West Africa. He was popular with his fellow soldiers, who often brought him birds they had shot. The pockets of his no doubt less-than-crisp tunic were always full of brushes and paints, as well as occasional birds or simply pieces of birds.
He painted very fast, paying great attention to proportions and details, often using brushes with only a few fine hairs. He’d frequently forget to eat or prepare to move camp. Fortunately he had a regular batman to collect his rations, prepare camp and care for his horses.
About this time Davies began an extensive correspondence with Austin Roberts, who was in charge of the Department of Higher Vertebrates at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. Roberts also bought skins from him.
The young soldier’s reputation was growing and it was time to look at what a man needed in the world. South West Africa was a rather solitary place. On a trip to Cape Town, he met Aileen Singleton Finch, daughter of Captain W Finch who was head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In August 1916 they were married.
At his wife’s insistence, the couple retained Aileen’s maiden name and they became Finch-Davies, the name possibly appealing to Davies’s avian interests.
Back in rural South West, Finch-Davies relied increasingly on books, journals and specimens borrowed from the Transvaal Museum, stressing in almost every letter how careful he would be to protect the material.
In 1918 a spat – its cause not defined in surviving correspondence – occurred between Finch-Davies and Roberts, the former complaining about being “somewhat hurt by Mr Roberts’s treatment” and suggesting that he might switch allegiance to the British Museum.
However, on being transferred to Pretoria at the end of the war, Finch-Davies donated his entire South West African bird skin collection to Roberts’s museum collection on condition that he be allowed access anytime he wished.
What happened next is captured in a statement by Austin Roberts: “Towards the end of November 1919, I happened to notice that three coloured plates had been torn from Vol 22 Cat. Birds Brit. Museum (Phasianidae) and, as I had not previously noticed this, drew Mr Sweistra’s attention to it. On the 5th December 1919, I happened to refer to another work where I observed another plate was missing.”
His curiosity aroused, Roberts searched other volumes and found more that 100 plates missing.
“Suspicion naturally centred on Lieut Finch-Davies, the only one who had the facilities of abstracting plates therefrom during the absence of the staff; yet I could not believe it possible that he would do so, from my knowledge of his care in handling books that were lent to him, and the great work he was doing in ornithology.”
The police were informed of the losses, set a trap and Finch-Davies was arrested. A closer check found 230 plates to be missing from 90 journals and books.
On 30 January the museum director, Dr Breijer, received a letter from Finch-Davies admitting the theft: “I cannot have any excuse for what I have done . . . I can only think that I must have suffered the madness of the collector, which distorts the moral sense.”
Given the seemingly out-of-character nature of the theft, and no doubt Finch-Davies’s reputation, the museum authorities decided not to prosecute. Finch-Davies promised to return the plates, or substitutes for them. As security he deposited his entire collection of bird paintings – 29 volumes – with the museum until he could make good its losses.
Some strings were also pulled to avoid a court-martial, and the artist was merely given a severe reprimand and transferred to the Castle in Cape Town. It could have been worse, but his hopes for promotion (after 27 years’ service) were over.
His wife remained in Pretoria until the birth of their third child, then moved to the married quarters in Cape Town.
On 18 May 1920 Breijer received a letter from L Peringuey, director of the South African Museum, on “a matter of great importance.” More that 130 plates were found to be missing from the museum’s bird journals and books.
Peringuey had met Finch-Davies, and naturally knew of the Pretoria incident. It appears the director made an appointment to see him.
Finch-Davies never made the meeting. Early that morning an orderly took coffee to his room in the Castle and found him dead on his bed. The newspapers reported the cause of death as “angina pectoris”, but soon afterwards rumours began circulating that the real cause was an overdose of cocaine.
The rumour could not be substantiated and Finch-Davies was given a military funeral and buried at Maitland Cemetery. His wife and children, virtually penniless, returned to Ireland.
There is a strange sequel to this sad tale. In 1940 Austin Roberts published The Birds of Southern Africa, now affectionately known as Roberts’ Birds. It soon became the top-selling book of its kind. Its first edition sold out in six weeks and it is in its seventh edition.
Such an undertaking required clear pictures, a job given to a draftsman named Norman Lighton, seconded to the Transvaal Museum from the Public Works Department.
In the vaults of the museum lay some 600 exquisite paintings by Finch-Davies, their ownership undecided. Austin Roberts, aware of the predicament of the dead artist’s wife, had tried to get the museum to buy them, but nothing came of it.
Lighton, under pressure to produce 56 plates containing watercolours of 1 032 birds, hauled out the Finch-Davies paintings and copied them – in most cases poorly. In a biography of Austin Roberts, Bob Brain says merely that Lighton “made extensive use” of Finch-Davies’s work. Dr Alan Kemp, who has done much to bring the work of Finch-Davies to public notice, is charitable about the matter, saying that, given the body of work available to Lighton, the use of Finch-Davies’s paintings was understandable.
But a close study of the work of both artists tells another story. Bird after bird is exactly copied, but certain elements – a feather here, a foot position there – are changed. Sometimes the bird’s position is reversed, but then the copy is often more exact. Was this done out of personal taste or in an attempt at concealment?
The use of all those pictures of uncertain ownership may be excusable had the original artist received due recognition. But the introduction of the first and later editions merely states: “the plates have been figured in colour by Mr Norman CK Lighton under the directions of the author.” Finch-Davies is not mentioned.
His wife, assisted by Roberts, managed to sell two paintings still in her possession for £17,7s – the only sum she would ever receive from her husband’s artistic labours. She remained dirt-poor for the rest of her life.
On the other side of the River Styx, Finch-Davies must be regretting his light-fingered foibles in an otherwise unblemished career. Without it he would probably have been the illustrator of Roberts’ Birds – and undoubtedly have become the most celebrated avian artist in Southern Africa. Fate works in curious ways.