A Pair of Sparrowhawks
A Pair of Sparrowhawks
A Pair of Sparrowhawks
A Pair of Sparrowhawks


A Pair of Sparrowhawks

1814 to 1888 England

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A Pair of Sparrowhawks

William Brodrick was the son of an eminent barrister living in Gower Street, London, who had a practice at the Old Bailey as well as other London Courts and the home circuit of Essex, Hertford and Middlesex. His maternal uncle was the renowned ornithologist P J Selby of Twizell House, Northumberland.

He was educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford but he later said of his school days that “…all I learned at Harrow was how to catch birds”. He gained a BA from Oxford in 1836 and then went to Edinburgh University to study medicine but it seems that he never practiced in this profession after completion of his studies as his lifelong passion for natural history held sway.

After he was married, he moved to Belford in Northumberland, living near to his uncle who imbued in William the passion for falconry on the moors. In those early days, Brodrick procured, trained and used very successfully many fine eyess falcons and tiercels as well as peregrines from the northern coasts, notably one from St. Abb’s Head, Berwickshire. He was financially well off and did not really need to work and thus was able to concentrate on this great passion.

When he later moved down to the south of England, firstly in Bath and later in Ilfracombe, he procured peregrines from Lundy Island which was known as a treasure trove of a source for this wonderful bird and had been since the Middle Ages. When he moved to his final home in Chudleigh, Devon, the topography was wholly unsuitable for the sport of falconry so he had to content himself with keeping his extensive collection of working birds as pets. This collection was remarkable, containing almost all of the raptors used in falconry at that time including the Norwegian, Greenland and Iceland sakers, gyr falcons and lanners. The only groups missing were the Indian shaheens and luggers.

Having had to relinquish his sporting pursuit, Brodrick was able to concentrate more on drawing and painting birds and his lifelong association and love of these birds meant that he was highly adept at portraying them in a naturalistic way. He understood the mechanics of their bodies, enhanced by his skill at taxidermy and, rather as Stubbs knew how horse bodies worked through many dissections, Brodrick’s intimate knowledge of their anatomy enabled him to accurately portray how their talons gripped a perch or prey and how they folded their wings.

It was not only birds of prey which he preserved and stuffed but also small birds of which canaries made up a large proportion. Indeed, so numerous were the cases of stuffed birds in his home that he had to lend some to Bath and Exeter Museums.

It is not as a result of his sporting prowess or taxidermy for which William Brodrick is such a renowned figure. It is for the remarkable illustrations in published books which were the most eminent of the time and are still revered today. The first, published in 1855, was “Falconry in the British Isles”, with the text was by Captain Francis Henry Salvin, an old friend. The dedication at the beginning of the book reads: “To all those who love sport for its own sake, and in the pursuit of it are willing to tread in the footsteps of their forefathers”.

It was written of the illustrations that “… the figures of hawks are in their way inimitable and bear comparison with the best work of his friend and only rival in the same line, the accomplished animal painter Joseph Wolf.”. There were chapters on the capture, taming, daily management, field training, diseases, implements and equipment for peregrines, gyr falcons, merlins, hobbies and sparrow hawks. The lithographs in the book were taken from the original very striking and well-observed watercolours and occasional oils that Brodrick had produced.

The volume was reprinted in 1875 by the original publisher, Mr van Voorst, but the original lithographic stones had been destroyed so Brodrick re-drew the plates and made some additions. Prior to this re-print though, the artist had produced another volume in 1875 titled “Falconers’ Favourites” which included life-size coloured portraits of the famous tiercel Comet which emanated from Lundy, as well as Hurricane which apparently was the best Dutch passage falcon that he ever kept. It also contained other illustrations of goshawk, merlin, hobby and sparrowhawk.

He lived at Little Hill in Chudleigh, Devon and it was from here that he sent his one exhibited painting. It was entitled “In the Mews”, (mews being the rooms or cages where moulting hawks are kept) and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881. In Mary Jones’s book “The History of Chudleigh, Devon; with a Description of the Surrounding Scenery, Seats, Families, etc.” published in1885, she writes: “There are several pleasant villas, recently erected, near the town, to the east: Littlehill the residence of W. Brodrick, Esq…”

He was apparently a rather shy and retiring individual, consequently not widely known outside his particular field though held in very high regard by that fraternity. It was not until after his death that a large collection of superb drawings were found of British sea anemones and mollusks which showed both their external appearance and internal structure and had been executed using a microscope of high magnification.

When he died on 21st December 1888, Brodrick left an estate valued at £23,000, a significant amount at that time. His coffin was born by eight non-commissioned officers of the Chudleigh Volunteers, a body of which Brodrick had been commanding officer and several other members attended the funeral including the commander at the time, Colonel Lord Clifford.

In a contemporary newspaper obituary it was written that: “As one who by his published works and private enterprise has done perhaps more than any of his generation to popularise and encourage the art of falconry in England, the name of William Brodrick deserves to be remembered.” The obituary concludes with: “Here we lay down the pen, certain that the memory of William Brodrick will long be held dear by all those that had the advantage of knowing him, and that nothing would have pleased him better than to have known (as it is feared he did not know) how very highly his “Falconry in the British Isles” was esteemed by the falconers and naturalists who may happen to peruse these lines.”

The Sparrowhawk is a small hawk with swept wings rather like a Merlin, and a narrow tail. Its habitat is widespread encompassing all types of woodland and the adjacent farmland, moor, marsh and heathland and can also be seen in urban environments such as parks and gardens.

It soars in a manner rather like a kestrel but when hunting descends to hunt, taking its prey by surprise. It eats almost any type of small to medium-sized bird that it can catch: the female, which is the larger bird, tends to go for starlings, pigeons, doves and thrushes whereas the smaller male prefers tits, finches and sparrows and others of a similar size. Once caught, they often take the catch to a favoured perch such as a tree stump or post where they strip away the feathers to consume the meat. A larger catch may be eaten over several visits.

The nest is constructed of twigs and sticks and at a cursory glance may be mistaken a s squirrel’s drey but is more carefully built and flatter topped than the animal’s. It is placed on a lateral side branch close to the trunk of a tall tree. The clutch of eggs numbers between four to six and all are incubated and if food is plentiful, all the white chicks will usually fledge.

The juvenile plumage evolves to that of the parents but the juvenile male has a bright rusty colour above with rufous bars and its underside is more of a buff pale-orange with brown bars. The young female is browner than the adult. The adult male is a bluish-grey above – with white spots when moulting - and is a barred rufous colour below. The flight is also slightly different between the sexes with the male having quick wingbeats, rapid climbs with sharp twists and turns with rapid dives on prey which often takes little heed of potential hazards like branches that come between it and its prey. The female, while sharing similar hunting techniques, has bigger mass and wider wings and utilises more a flap and glide flight.

In Chapter 10 of “Falconry of the British Isles”, William Brodrick writes, accompanied by coloured plates of both male and female sparrowhawks: “This bold little Hawk so much resembles…(the Goshawk)… that it might be fairly called its miniature portrait, the principal difference between the two consists in the legs and feet of the Sparrow-Hawk being longer and more slender in proportion to the rest of the body; in temper also it is very similar. Its prey however, consists entirely of birds, this hawk being the only British species which lives solely on its own order….In its wild state the Sparrow-Hawk is so determined in the pursuit of its quarry, that it has frequently been known to dash through a window in order to seize some cage-bird.

Like the Goshawk, it is flown from the fist, or, as it is termed, “at bolt,” and starts at once into full speed, which, for a short distance, is very considerable.

The young birds are ready to be taken from the nest about the middle of June…As nestling Sparrow-Hawks are inclined to scramble out of their basket and wander away before they can at all fly, there is considerable danger of some of them being lost in long grass, or destroyed by cats or weasels…. Under these circumstances, Falconers prefer bringing them up in a large empty room, placed upon straw, until they can fly well.

When taken up, this Hawk should be treated in exactly the same manner as the Goshawk, viz, carried as much as possible, never hooded, except when travelling and placed upon the bow-perch; it will not, however, bear the same amount of fasting, but, on the contrary, requires to be highly fed, a few mouthfuls, without castings, being given in the morning.

When placed upon the fist, the Sparrow-Hawk displays an amazing amount of obstinacy, and will even appear to have lost all power to its legs…the only mode of overcoming this disposition is to continue to replace it gently on the fist as often as it falls off, and to outdo its resolution, brushing its legs at the same time with a feather…

The Sparrow-hawk is mentioned by the poet Chaucer, in his ‘Assembly of Birds,’ as being a favourite at that period for the purpose of taking quails; and the Manchester Exhibition of 1857 contained a portrait by Titian of a Duke of Milan carrying a Sparrow-Hawk on his wrist.

When landrails were more abundant in this country than they are at the present day, the Sparrow-Hawk was used in capturing them….and can also take old and young partridges, pigeons, water-hens, blackbirds, thrushes and many other of the smaller birds.

In India, it is the custom to throw the Sparrow-hawk at its quarry, by way of giving it greater impetus in the star… The Hawk, which in the East is always carried by the left hand round the body above the thighs; it is then lifted and transferred to the right hand, the breast of the bird lying on the palm of the hand with her legs extended along the tail. When the game rises she is thrown, after the manner of overhand bowling in cricket, directly towards it. …After each capture the Hawk must be rewarded with a mouthful or two of the victim…it is only when in good humour that it will exert itself at all…It is worse than useless to attempt to work it, excepting when it is in flying order….being of a very delicate constitution, and particularly liable to die during the first year from fits; it cannot bear hunger or cold, and should always have a few mouthfuls of food given to it early in the morning. It requires an occasional bath, and must be kept in a well-shuttered situation. The bell should always be fastened on to the tail, as this appendage is in perpetual motion.

Before closing our observations on the management of the different Hawks whilst in training, a few hints as to their treatment during a journey may prove of service. The safest mode of conveying Hawks is to carry the bird or birds upon the arm; this plan should always be adopted where there are not more than two of them; when however, the Falconer has to carry about with him a larger establishment, the “box cadge” should be used; the Hawks, being hooded, are fastened to it, as on the cadge, with their breast turned outwards. The Falconer, during the journey, requires to be always in close attendance upon his birds…to prevent their being exposed to cold draughts, so prevalent at railway stations, and which might produce the “kecks”. Upon his arrival at the termination of the day’s journey, if at a country inn, there will be little difficulty in finding some quiet garden where there is a plot of grass or a paddock, where the Hawk may remain unhooded until the journey has to be renewed….When, however, he has to stop in a town, or where a quiet spot cannot be obtained, the Hawks had better be placed unhooded (or, if necessary, hooded) on stones or flower-pots, in a room or loose box covered with straw. If the place is too small to peg them down, it should be rendered perfectly dark, as without light the Hawks will not move, and consequently cannot get at and injure each other."
Private collection, possibly by descent through the family of Herbert Charles
Hume Spry 1853-1927, nephew of the artist
Height 61.30 cm (24.13 inches)
Width 41.00 cm (16.14 inches)
External Height 51.00 cm (20.08 inches)
External Width 72.30 cm (28.46 inches)
Oil on board
Signed with initials and dated 1881
John Bennett Fine Paintings

John Bennett Fine Paintings

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