This post about the Artist, Writer and Explorer, Hugh Brandon-Cox (1917 – 2004), is one of a series of short biographies about artists and writers inspired by Nature and the Countryside and whose works have fostered my own love of the Countryside – especially Birds.
Hugh Brandon-Cox was an artist, explorer and writer inspired as much by the wildlife and wind-swept expanses of the north Norfolk coast as of northern Scandinavia.
He was born on June 14 1917 at Elmstead Market, Essex. His father, Colonel John Brandon-Cox, a well-known naturalist and explorer, had been killed during a Zulu uprising in Southern Africa (where he was serving as District Commissioner) a few months before his only son was born. He remained an important influence on Hugh, who conceived a firm ambition to become an explorer.
Hugh’s mother, Eva, died of tuberculosis when he was five years old and Hugh went to live with his maternal grandmother in Clacton. He spent a great deal of his childhood exploring the Essex countryside round the river Colne. In these early years, he was encouraged by his grandmother, who took him on bird watching expeditions to the Essex marshes and sent him out exploring by himself with food to last him through the day.
He became fascinated by stories of expeditions to the Arctic and, as a teenager, gained a working knowledge of Swedish in the hope that that this would prove valuable in the future: subsequently at the outbreak of War in 1939 spending much of his time in Scandinavia serving with the special forces; where he helped a large number of Norwegians to escape to Britain when their country was invaded by the Germans, and later helped Allied servicemen who had escaped from Germany to find their way back home.
After the war, Brandon-Cox went to live in Wiltshire where he founded The West Countryman magazine. It was a successful venture, but he longed to return to the wide skies of East Anglia. He moved to Cambridge, where he worked as a countryside and nature correspondent for a national magazine, often illustrating his articles with his own photographs.
Brandon-Cox wrote and illustrated a series of books about his travels in Norway and the Arctic circle and later wrote books which evoked the bleak grandeur of the coastal scenery and the timeless quality of the Norfolk countryside. In his later years he became equally well known for his watercolours of Norfolk country scenes and wildlife, which are eagerly sought by collectors.
In The Trail of the Arctic Nomads (1969), he described a year he spent trekking with the Lapps on their long migration with their reindeer from their winter home to the summer feeding grounds on the north Norway coast, illustrating with his own photographs the difficulties of nomad life in a country of deep snows, bitter winds and frozen rivers.
In Summer of a Million Wings (1974), he described the teeming wildlife of the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway, the summer nesting grounds for millions of breeding birds, and chronicled his expedition to find an eyrie of the elusive sea eagle. In 1976, he published A Longing to Explore, an account of his various Scandinavian expeditions.
In 2002, he published Mud on My Boots, a personal account, illustrated with his own paintings, of a walk along the Norfolk Heritage Coast, from Snettisham to Blakeney. Describing a winter’s day on Brancaster beach, he wrote: “With a grim relentness fury, the wind stung my face, bringing a smarting to the eyes. Howling direct from the cold steppes of Siberia, it reached this open mudscape at Brancaster with a low, moaning anger. Ebb tide brings to this great exposed expanse of shifting sands, saltings, and gurgling creeks on the north Norfolk coast a huge vista empty of all humans on this bleak day.”
His last book, Softly Wakes The Dawn, an illustrated anthology of extracts from his Countryman’s Notes columns, was published last November (2003).
The header image is entitled “Blakeney Marshes Avocets 1977” in Watercolour.
It is not typical of his work – he is perhaps better known for his Watercolour landscapes of the Norfolk Countryside – a good example being the one heading up the post on ‘Autumn’ – but maybe illustrates the success story of the return of the Avocet as a breeding bird to Britain after the last war and as such is a fitting image to celebrate both the artist and the efforts of the RSPB and others in helping its return.