In 1953 a mouse crept into the painting and has stayed there ever since. Only he’s very hard to see among the loose brushstrokes and all the colors. Like your favorite puzzle in the Highlights magazine you read as a kid, the work of Terence Cuneo is a game of spotting the ‘hidden’ creature.
Cuneo (1907-1996) said he first sketched a mouse as a diversion. He had been working on the formal painting of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when his Burmese cat came into his studio, toting a field mouse; he thought the tiny fellow would make a good ‘still life.’ Literally, I guess—the mouse was dead. And apparently when he showed the still life at the ‘Summer Exhibition’ of the Royal Watercolour Society, the attendees loved it and cried for more. That’s when he decided to sneak a mouse—sometimes realistic, sometimes cartoony—into his finished works. Thinking about how his trademark rodent essentially upstaged his paintings, the search to find the creature a distraction, I began to wonder why he, as an artist, didn’t mind, why he let the mouse define him; I wondered who was Terence Cuneo and whether the mouse was more than a gimmick, a metaphor for something far more personal.
After Cuneo graduated from London’s prestigious Slade School of Art, the curtain rose on his life and never dropped. To his enthusiastic audience he was one of the twentieth century’s greats; in truth he never broke new ground. Working in the same era that produced fellow British artists Stanley Spencer and Victor Pasmore, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, Cuneo didn’t waver; the people’s painter was a traditionalist through and through, stone-deaf to the noises of the on-going movements in modern art. His works seemed to be without a perspective. A painting of a factory scene, for example, wasn’t a statement of the workers’ situation but was simply a busy record of what Cuneo’s eye saw—and more often than not it was a commission by the manufacturer. Cuneo took commercialism in art to new heights, creating countless advertisements and prints from his illustrations and paintings of military actions, car racing and equestrian events, and his beloved British railways; he let his work be reproduced on practically any object that could roll off a conveyor belt or a printing press, from jigsaw puzzles to posters to postage stamps.
In addition to the numerous commissions he received from industry, he was called upon to paint portraits of Britain’s elite, including members of the Royal family—thereby he was named the ‘official artist’ for the Queen’s coronation. According to those who knew him, he was a kind and generous man. I kept searching for something more, something that might have indicated a darker side to his character—inner conflict vis-à-vis creativity and all that. But instead I only found this comment from him, “People talk of creative men having terrible moods of despair. I’m a happy sort of chap on the whole.”
The mouse I guess for Cuneo was nothing more than an amusement.
Sources: Quote from Sotheby’s Auction Notes, Victorian and Edwardian Pictures, 2005; Tom Coates, “Obituary: Terence Cuneo,” The Independent, January 8, 1996; The Elmbridge Museum; Cuneo Fine Arts.