CLAUDE GIBNEY FINCH-DAVIES

(1875-1920)

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THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War Davies was involved in the campaign to occupy German South West Africa.  Knowing his interests, his fellow soldiers often brought him birds they had shot.   He was always carrying brushes, paints and birds, and sometimes bits of birds.

He painted very fast, paying great attention to proportions and details, often using brushes with only a few fine hairs.  Apparently he'd frequently forget to eat or prepare to move camp. His batman had 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.  This was the Roberts who later produced Birds of Southern Africa the forerunner of South African bird books.

Finch-Davies' reputation as an bird artist was growing and it was about this time, during a trip to Cape Town, he met Aileen Singleton Finch, daughter of Captain W Finch.  He  was head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  In August 1916 he married Aileen.  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 South West Africa, 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.

The stamps illustrated are from the "Birds of Venda" issue of 1991.  These are the Cape Batis (21c), the Natal Robin (35c), the Collared Sunbird (40c) and the Yellow-streaked Bulbul (50c).  These birds are all relatively common birds throughout Southern Africa and were probably painted during his time in the Eastern Cape.

 

THE TRAGIC END

In 1918 an argument 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.

In was shortly after this, towards the end of 1919, that Mr. Roberts noticed that plates of bird sketches were missing from the museum's collection.  Finch-Davies was the only person with access to the plates without museum staff being present and was thus the prime suspect.

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.  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.

Finch-Davies was transferred to Cape Town.  However on 18 May 1920 it was discovered that more than 130 plates had been found to be missing from the South African Museum in Cape Town's bird journals and books.  Finch-Davies was found dead shortly after the discovery, presumably having committed suicide.

 

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