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Artists Inspired by Nature – Eric Ennion


Eric Ennion (1900 — 1981) was born on 7th June 1900 at Kettering in Northamptonshire, the son of a country doctor. In 1904 the family moved to Burwell on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens where, after studying medicine at Caius College and St Mary's Hospital, he joined his father's practice in 1926.

The Edwardian countryside around Burwell was rich in wildlife and Eric made full use of his freedom to explore. From an early age he was fascinated by birds, and with drawing them. Eric was also inspired by the countryside writings of Richard Jefferies – his book The Amateur Poacher was a particular favourite.

Eric's earliest paintings owe much to the book illustrations he saw, and work by artists such as Thorburn and Southgate, but there may also have been family influences on his development as an artist and naturalist. His maternal great uncle was the animal painter J. Bouverie Goddard who exhibited at the Royal Academy towards the end of the 19th century.

As an artist, Eric Ennion was entirely self taught. The key to his work is the field sketches which he made in the 1930's and which he kept and treasured for the rest of his life – not just as his 'stock in trade' providing source material for his pictures for the next 40 years, but as wonderful works in their own right. Many of these exquisite small sketches were done in Burwell Fen and in the Cambridgeshire countryside nearby, sometimes whilst on his rounds visiting patients. Often the sketches were reworked in the studio and the best ones cut out and pasted down on card. Some of the earliest were redrawn several years later but were still inscribed with the date of the original observation.

He continued to sketch in the field for the rest of his life - he was sketching birds in Savernake Forest just days before his death - but it was the material from the 1930's which formed the core of his reference collection – favourite images were used many times and can be found in book illustrations and exhibited pictures.

Eric's eyes were acutely observant, catching the individual character of birds, their odd movements and ways of standing. These observations were interpreted in a wholly personal way with a fluent use of watercolour or economically controlled pen line. His field sketches, and rough memory drawings when working out compositions for paintings, were drawn rapidly and with a certainty borne of long practice and deep knowledge of the subject. He had a great understanding of the pictorial possibilities in nature and how to grasp the essential elements for picture-making.

He exhibited his own work widely - his first few London one-man shows of sporting pictures being at the Greatorex Galleries in 1937/38 - Gamebirds, Wildfowl and Waders. He held his fourth London exhibition in 1948, this time at the Arthur Ackermann Galleries in Old Bond Street – mainly birds and landscapes from the Suffolk marshes, executed on toned paper.

In 1941-42 Burwell Fen was drained and reclaimed for agriculture as part of the war effort. Eric wrote Adventurers Fen, published in 1942, recording its history over the previous forty years. It is arguably his finest book – with The House on the Shore and Tracks, it was the one of which he was most proud. The British Bird followed in 1943 and here the illustrations show an economical line and wash technique which signalled the way ahead.

In all he was the author of eleven books, illustrating all but one of them himself, including The Story of Migration (1947), Life on the Sea Shore (1948) and The Lapwing (1949), and was the illustrator of a similar number by other authors.

At the end of the war he sold the medical practice and took the opportunity to become the first warden of the pioneer Field Studies Centre at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. After five years at Flatford, he and his wife Dorothy established their own Field Centre and Bird Observatory at Monks' House, in Northumberland. The story of their ten years there is beautifully told by Eric in his book The House on the Shore, published in 1960. In 1961 they 'retired' to Shalbourne in Wiltshire. There Eric ran his own private courses on land-scape and wildlife painting and continued to paint, lecture and teach natural history until his death in 1981.

The move to the Mill House at Shalbourne heralded a period of great creativity – at last Eric had more time to paint and he produced many large works including the nine paintings of Brownsea Island which he presented to the National Trust. His son Hugh farmed the watercress beds which stretched up the small valley behind the house. The birds they held provided a constant source of inspiration. In 1963 Eric published Birdwatching, a book in the Pelham Practical Books series.

Birds were his abiding interest. While at Flatford he served on the Councils of the RSPB and the BTO and was the latter's regional representative for Suffolk and Essex.He joined the Bird Observatories Committee of the BTO in 1951. And served on the Council of the British Ornithologists' Union from 1959 to 1962.

In 1960 Eric had joined Robert Gillmor in organising an exhibition of  British Bird Painters – the first of its kind – at the Reading Museum and Art Gallery. It was a great success, subsequently touring the country, and led to the formation, in 1964, of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Eric was the first Chairman, with Robert Gillmor as Honorary Secretary, and together they took the lead in developing the fledgling Society. As Robert has recorded, Eric was completely dedicated to the SWLA. He exhibited at every annual exhibition until his death.

In 1966, again with Robert Gillmor, he organised an exhibition, British Bird Painting, in Oxford for the 14th International Ornithological Congress – one of many exhibitions they organised together in the 1960's and 70's. Eric co-authored Tracks (1967) with his friend Niko Tinbergen and they then produced Signals for Survival (1970) with Hugh Falkus.

In the following decade, he continued to paint and to run courses on wildlife and landscape painting. He was a natural teacher who inspired both an enthusiasm for the subject and devotion to himself. He taught his pupils to see with a fresh vision: not just his, but how to develop their own.

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Cynthia Reyes
Cynthia Reyes
August 2, 2018 10:06 pm

I like this post and I like your writing.

March 8, 2019 1:51 pm

[…] You can read more about Eric Ennion in my post about him here. […]

August 25, 2019 9:02 pm

[…] Artists Inspired by Nature – Eric Ennion […]