GALLERIES: A master of the moment

Thursday March 12 2020

'Murmuration of Starlings', by Timothy Brooke. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


As well as having a passion for paint, Timothy Brooke clearly has a love of language, too.

For one of the most interesting paintings in his current exhibition is called Murmuration of Starlings; an esoteric collective noun first recorded in 1468 and usually confined to quizzes and other word games.

It signals the way starlings flock; as many as 100,000 of them at a time, wheeling and whirling across the sky in an ever-changing mass as each bird follows the flight path of those nearest to it while seeking a place where all can roost.

Brooke captures it well, with a dabbing brush that defines the birds even as they coalesce in one shape-shifting gathering.

The phenomenon is frequently photographed and filmed but this is the first time I have seen anyone trouble to paint it. And that is typical of Brooke.

A painter for the past 60 or so years he is a master of the moment, of a magical realism that creates a careful record of what to many must seem commonplace but which might not be with us for much longer.


He is showing us what we still have and warning us of the grandeur we could lose.

It stems from his ability to capture the essentials of any scene, animal or object with a few economical brushstrokes (a reductive brilliance that can take a lifetime to achieve) and of course from the innate qualities of the subjects he selects; whether elephants congregating in a river (Sandbar), big cats on the prowl (Lions of Ol Olokwe) the haughty stare of a lone giraffe, (Camelopardis and Reticulated) or even something once so common and now so scare as a wooden wheel hanging on a wall.

With this latter work, called The Cedar House, the real pleasure of that painting is in the expert handling of layers of faded paint remaining on the wall.


With Brooke, the delights are often in such small touches, incidentals that reveal a deep empathy for the whole and a technical skill that is a masterclass for any aspiring artist. Two of the paintings, bizarrely, abandon the general wildlife and rural living theme to pay tribute to another aspect of Kenya that is internationally known and feted — middle distance running.

One shows reigning 5,000 metres world champion Hellen Obiri in full flow; the other the moment in the Under-20 World Championships 800 metres when Solomon Lekuta clinched gold and his compatriot Ng'eno Kipng'etich, won silver.

Given that the exhibition is titled Almost Vanishing Africa, I hope as an athletics fan that Brooke is not forecasting correctly.

There are figures too in Riverside; two women collecting water, with the flowing orange headscarf of one making a wild splash of colour on the wall.

The most recent 18 oils on canvas, forming the core of this exhibition — at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi — are hung in the Stables space while a selection of around 25 earlier oils and watercolour and charcoal drawings is shown in the ground floor of the adjacent Loft.

It is the charcoals that typify Brooke’s spare style, one that translates effortlessly to the paintings and has remained a fairly constant feature of his work over the last 20 or so years.

In the drawings his taut line is by its nature more obvious than in the paintings, in which he models form with colour, light and shade.

Yet it is his ability as a draughtsman that has provided the insights that enable him to create structure within his compositions as surely as skeletons are the matrix that carries flesh.


Clearly Brooke relishes the tension that line can create and in many of his oils he adopts a bicameral approach in which the two great houses of linear and painterly styles are combined.

Here Marsabit Lioness is a perfect example, with the painterly moulding of the creature’s flanks enhanced by a vigorous black outline that projects the subject forward with gathering speed.

Brooke at his painterly best can be seen in Deep Blue, an exemplary evocation of flamingos in flight and in Amboseli, which perfectly captures the heft of its four elephants.

Of the 18 most recent paintings, other than the flamboyance of flamingos, there are no birds except his swooping, swirling starlings.

Alas, no enchantment of larks, no hardship of ravens not even a murder of crows to be seen.

They may come in future as Brooke paints doughtily on, but for now his flamingos and starlings will have to suffice.