VG&M loans ‘Big Bird’ to Sotheby’s exhibition

The University’s Victoria Gallery & Museum (VG&M) has loaned an important painting from its collection to Sotheby’s. Here it will play a key role in a 6 week long exhibition celebrating the UK’s central role in the creative lives of leading international artists.

The VG&M is one of 11 UK museums to have loaned their artworks to the exhibition London: An Artistic Crossroads, which brings together remarkable pieces by artists who passed through or settled in the UK during their lifetime.

Big Bird, 1964 by Sir Frank Bowling (b. 1934) will join 11 other works on display as part of Sotheby’s annual summer exhibitions.

Dr Amanda Draper, Curator of Art and Exhibitions said: “The exhibition celebrates the major contribution that artists of different backgrounds and heritage have made to the British cultural landscape. We’re immensely proud and honoured that a work from our collection is helping to tell this important story.”

Big Bird was gifted to the University of Liverpool in 1975 by the Contemporary Art Society (CAS). The institution had just recently joined the Society at this time, and this was the first artwork acquired as part of the scheme. As part of this process curators could choose which artwork they were gifted, and Big Bird was selected.

The opening of London: An Artistic Crossroads coincides with NG200 – the Bicentenary celebrations of London’s National Gallery. As the National Gallery launches its National Treasures programme, where 12 of the nation’s most iconic and well-loved paintings from the collection are lent to 12 venues across the UK, this exhibition does the reverse: bringing 12 works from major regional collections together in the capital city.

The exhibition opens from 25 May to 2 July in Sotheby’s New Bond Street Galleries.

Head to to find out more.

Big Bird by Sir Frank Bowling

Bowling painted Big Bird in 1964. The principal motif of a swan with a bloodied beak, was based on an actual dying swan that he had seen one day while walking the shore of the Thames.

For Bowling, swans came to symbolise the different aspects of his life: despite achieving success in his career early on, his personal life was complicated, feeling “the stresses of domestic life”. So, like a healthy swan he appeared serene on the outside, but inside he struggled like a distressed or injured swan.

Bowling also saw the swan as symbol of what could go wrong in life if you did not ‘fly right’ i.e. apply yourself to your work and take care in personal relationships.

In 1966, Big Bird was submitted to a major art exhibition in Senegal featuring African diaspora artists, where it won the grand prize for painting. However, Bowling was dispirited by the accolade – commenting that he would prefer to be known as a painter, not a Black painter. 54 years later, in 2019, having developed his work in multiple directions, Bowling was granted a retrospective at Tate Britain, with Big Bird fittingly taking pride of place in the very first gallery.

More about Sir Frank Bowling

Bowling was born in Guyana and came to Britain age 19 to further his education. He served in the RAF for his National Service and afterward studied art. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1962 and was awarded the Silver medal for painting (David Hockney won the Gold medal). He gained immediate success and has worked in both London and New York; his currently studio is in London. Bowling is known for his abstract compositions and use of vibrant colours in his work and his constant exploration of the capabilities of paint as a medium.

Bowling was elected to the Royal Academy in 2005, and was the first artist of Black heritage to gain the accolade. Bowling was knighted in 2020 and he celebrated his 90th birthday in February this year.

Image credit: Frank Bowling Big Bird, 1964. The Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024