Painted in 2008, Walton Ford’s The Undead is a wonderfully lifelike rendering of the now-extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, once one of the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials. Sinewy and sleek, Ford’s thylacine hunches over a docile lamb, and echoing the methods of naturalists such as John James Audubon or Maria Sibylla Merian, he has painted his creatures in watercolour. While scientific illustration was formerly the only way to capture the strange, extraordinary flora and fauna of distant lands, these images were often static and drawn to convey as much information as possible. ‘I think there’s an enormous amount of resonance with this medium when it comes to my subject matter: it’s the traditional way to portray an animal from the moment, when you’re in the presence of it,’ Ford said. ‘There’s something visceral and wonderful about an animal that’s painted life size, that’s sort of in the room with you – as in Audubon’s watercolours … I want to make paintings that defy the photographic ability to reproduce them’ (W. Ford quoted in T. Marks, ‘I find myself making growling noises while I’m painting’ – an interview with Walton Ford’, Apollo, 24 October 2018, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/i-find-myself-making-growling-noises-while-im-painting-an-interview-with-walton-ford/).
Unlike his predecessors’ depictions, Ford’s animals are fully animated and staged within dramatic, vivid narratives. The sense of the cinematic perhaps comes from his years attending the Rhode Island School of Design where he studied film; he quickly determined that movies were not for him, however, and began his painting practice. Ford’s fascination with animals dates to a childhood spent doodling dinosaurs, but his compositions are also inspired by dioramas, and his paintings often subtly address contact between mankind and the animal world. His works breach the division enacted by the diorama’s glass partition, but in the case of the thylacine, the relationship is more explicit as the animal’s extinction resulted from human persecution. In intoxicating detail, The Undead evokes a rapacious appetite both in the subject represented and the history to which it alludes.