Bird Man's River

Eric Ennion was arguably the most important and influential British painter of birds and wildlife in the 20th century, inspiring almost every contemporary artist from Kim Atkinson to Robert Gillmor. Yet even the name of this quiet genius remains unfamiliar to some, while the art itself makes little impression on others.

Occasionally his painted birds can have a rather too solid, almost sculptural quality, as if they were made of bronze. More usually, however, they have a liquid fluency, reflecting Ennion’s ability to capture the often awkward movement and electric dynamism of his subjects. My own personal view is that Ennion at his best had a capacity to ‘see’ the living, breathing, moving creature and then capture what he had witnessed better than any other painter who has turned their attention to birds.

This ‘new’ book, Bird Man’s River, was originally intended for publication in the 1940s, but like many artists ahead of their time, Ennion was sometimes difficult to sell to the public. The book lay dormant for 70 years until Bob Walthew, the artist’s friend and unofficial keeper of the Ennion flame, finally managed to see it through to publication. It documents Ennion’s primary passions as a naturalist, which were for wetlands and waterbirds, both at home (in his native Cambridgeshire and northern Scotland) and abroad (The Netherlands and Iceland). Some of the plates have already appeared in an earlier retrospective book by Walthew entitled One Man’s Birds (2004). However, the new book includes a good number of previously unseen paintings that are of outstanding quality; Ennion’s images of harriers deserve special attention.

The artwork is accompanied by a composite text that includes most of an original manuscript, but also several published articles written by Ennion until the 1950s. Like a number of outstanding visual artists, he was also a fine writer and his prose, while often carrying a high-gloss finish, shows a similarly acute eye for detail, colour and form. Ennion manages to convey the same deep passion for field experience that one finds in the writings of Desmond Nethersole-Thompson or Ian Wallace at their best.
  • Bird Man’s River by Eric Ennion (Benton Street Books, Ipswich, 2011)
  • 160 pages, 80 colour illustrations, eight line drawings
  • ISBN 9780957046504. Hbk, £35