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Written in the late 1930's, this title recounts a decade or more of Eric Ennion's birdwatching adventures, spiced with occasional sporting anecdotes, and describes the birds he saw. He used some of his best sketches for the 26 plates he prepared as illustrations for this book and to these have been added pictures from his London exhibitions and other works from the period.
"This is more than a mere book. It is an exhibition, a retrospective, a resurrection, of an artist and of his milieu; unearthed from the fens he loved and later lost to war-effort improvement. Here, his record is restored, patched and polished now for all to see. Eric Ennion wrote Bird Man’s River in the late 1930s. He created most of the artwork included here to publish with his evocative and in places vivid descriptions, working always in situ; from raw, lived experience of birds and their wild, wetland haunts. He centred on the then scruffy fenlands north of Cambridge, close to where he lived and worked as a GP, but he travelled widely too, sketching and painting as he went.
Ennion is widely regarded as one of, if not the most influential artist in the genre of the twentieth century. Former Birds magazine editor Rob Hume speaks of outputs ‘so very different from any field guide illustration… he achieved movement, action, jizz to perfection.’ Artist John Busby has told me that ‘Eric was, and still is, the most inspiring artist of nature I have ever known. I continue to marvel at his understanding of everything he drew, and how he gave such individual life to each bird and animal.’
The plates are reproduced at actual size or as close to as the format of the book will allow. Any gaps in the narrative have been seamlessly filled by Bob Walthew, with a loving and sensitive eye. The detail of some of the prose is sublime, confirming Ennion as a field naturalist of immense skill and insight. This description of a ditch is just one small but precious example: ‘…the muddy sides are riddled by the borings of Snipe. Most of these bores are really two half-circular holes, one for each of the slightly-parted mandibles, with a fragile mud partition in between. Every now and then there is a single, wider hole where a worm was found and cautiously withdrawn.’
His description of a young, passage Osprey seen in the Broads nearly 20 years before the species had returned to breed in Britain, is another precious gem: ‘the legs were often let down, as if testing their reach… the clenched blue feet looked workmanlike’.
Inter-war year austerity prevented publication of Bird Man’s River at the time. Ennion tried again in the early 1950s to see it published, adding revisions to the text, but the high costs of colour reproduction again frustrated his attempts.
Laurie Lee once wrote that ‘any bits of warm life preserved by the pen are trophies snatched from the dark, are branches of leaves fished out of the flood, are tiny arrests of mortality’. Bird Man’s River is all of these things, warm life resurrected in words and paint, and brought together in this beautifully and affectionately presented tribute to the man, his birds and his sadly much diminished but yet retrievable places.
‘Through his art and teaching he changed the whole direction of wildlife art,’ says John Busby. ‘Above all, I think he wanted people to see nature as it really was, not as presented in the old book illustrations, and to understand the vibrant energy of creature’s lives. All the artists I know who work from life today regard Eric as the supreme example to follow.’
It remains curious to me is that other artists I have spoken to admit that while they are aware of Eric Ennion’s importance within the sphere of so-called wildlife art, his influence may not have been felt more widely. Is it time that wildlife art broke out of its ‘box’? What other branches of art confine themselves narrowly to a subject? There are sound practical and historical reasons why wildlife artists formed their own Society (Ennion himself being a founder), but can we now through art begin to challenge the view that ‘wildlife’ appreciation and representation exists somehow separately from wider human interests and concerns? As we confront the challenges of conservation and a beleaguered environment in the twenty-first century, it would be a fitting tribute to Eric Ennion and to champions of ‘nature’ of all kinds if we could use his example and prodigious talent to begin to break down some of these imagined and in some ways self-imposed barriers. Bird Man’s River can be a significant contribution to that end."
- Conor Jameson, www.britishbirds.co.uk, 2012-07-23