John Busby, wildlife and landscape artist, writer and teacher
Speed of observation was essential to much of John Busby’s wildlife art. It allowed him, for example, to capture the precise millisecond when, say, a peregrine braked before striking its prey. “His drawings appear to have been cut from the sky with a few strokes of a Stanley knife” was how his fellow member of the Artists for Nature Foundation, Robin d’Arcy Shillcock, put it.
“Animals and birds are nearly always on the move,” Busby wrote in his final book, Lines From Nature, which is to be posthumously published by Langford Press. “They don’t wait about, posing for an artist… I love to watch nature in action and I try to match the activity I see with energy-creating lines and marks on the sketchbook page… Often there is only time for a brief mark; a reminder of a quickly changing moment. In such a situation I may draw without taking my eyes off the bird or animal in the process; hand and eye acting as one.“
To draw birds, you have to look at them. “Really look at them. Not just patterns and markings, but also distinctive shapes and postures,” ornithologist Bill Oddie observed in his foreword to the 2004 edition of Busby’s Drawing Birds. “One thing for sure: you couldn’t have a better mentor than John Busby. Mind you, don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of his style. It may look easy but it most certainly isn’t.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Busby’s landscapes were often imagined from a bird’s eye view. “He enjoyed the opportunity to go up in the air, whether by hot-air balloon, microlight or glider and sketch the scene below,” says his elder daughter Rachel Shearer. “One series of dramatic landscapes not so long ago began with a simple plane trip over Nebraska. Looking out of the aircraft window, he sketched some quick initial impressions and, because he had been training his visual memory for decades, he didn’t need to see the scene again in order to complete his pictures.”
His concept of landscape extended to rock pools for which he had a fascination, resulting in a series of oil paintings from the shore at Tynningham near his home in East Lothian. In them, said the naturalist Mark Cocker, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, “he explores not only the way in which light is refracted in these basins of shallow water, but also the swaying shapes of weed or micro-formations of subtly patterned sandstone, as if they were woods and fields across hillsides and valleys”.
This artistic device of having rock pools viewed from a height, clearly had its origin in Busby’s early years. “As a child I would imagine myself scaled down to the size of a pilot in a Dinky Toy aeroplane held at arm’s length above my head,” Busby wrote in his book Land Marks and Sea Wings (2005). “Looking down at the seashore from this imagined height, all the drama of a full-scale landscape was there – great mountain ranges, deep canyons, lakes and ocean depths – as exciting as a primeval world at the beginning of time.”
Busby was born in 1928 in Bradford, where his father Eric was a director of Busbys department store. The family moved to Menston in Lower Wharfedale when John was seven, a move which brought nature, birds and landscape firmly, and lastingly, to his attention. Meeting the naturalist and wildlife artist Eric Ennion at his Northumberland bird observatory in the early 1950s, while Busby was an art student, was a revelation of what was possible in the difficult art of portraying birds.
Following two years National Service in the RAF, he studied at both Leeds and Edinburgh Colleges of Art. After a travelling scholarship he taught at Edinburgh College of Art from 1956 to 1988. During his time there, he became a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA), and produced his first three books, The Living Birds of Eric Ennion (1982), Drawing Birds (1986) and Birds in Mallorca (1988)
He was a born teacher, empathetic, encouraging and practical. He set up an annual Seabird Drawing Course, based at North Berwick which has run from 1988 to the present, now supported by the SWLA. “He led by example,” says his daughter Rachel. “After his death, we have received hundreds of letters and cards. So many of them from people he had encouraged on a career of drawing wildlife, saying what an inspiration he had been to them. He was fun to be with, too. People used to enjoy his party trick of cutting bird shapes out of cartridge paper — they were so lifelike. We used to decorate our Christmas trees with them.”
A major retrospective of his work was held at Bradford City Art Gallery in 1999, and another is due at Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall, Twigworth, Gloucestershire, this year from August 4 to September 6.
Busby was President of the Society of Scottish Artists 1976-79, an elected member of the Royal Scottish Academy and of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW). Wildlife conservation was also a concern for him, and in 1990 he became a founder member of the Netherlands-based Artists for Nature Foundation, travelling widely overseas with other members to raise awareness of what could be lost if the local resources were not valued. In 2009 he was delighted to be declared Master Wildlife Artist 2009 by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin – the USA’s most prestigious wildlife art institution.
Busby was a committed Christian and, despite an aversion to admin, served as treasurer of St Andrews’s Church in Prestonpans for 30 years. In the late 1950s he was commissioned to paint a mural covering the East wall in St Columba’s-by-the-Castle in central Edinburgh. The mural, entitled Christ in Majesty, contains much symbolism.
With his wife Joan he lived in a house built for them in the grounds of Ormiston Hall, near Edinburgh. Their peaceful garden was within the walls of the 18C ruin which had been destroyed by fire during WWII. There, latterly, he would enjoy watching and drawing the many species of birds attracted to a feeder, especially the long-tailed tits, sometimes 15 at a time.
He married Joan Warriner, a fellow member of Edinburgh University Singers, in 1959. A retired professional singer, she still teaches singing at Edinburgh Napier University and also at the annual singers summer school, Oxenfoord International, of which she is a former artistic director. Busby himself sang in local choirs for many years and listened to Radio 3 continuously while painting.
His wife survives him with their three children.
John Philip Busby, RSA, RSW, wildlife and landscape artist and teacher, was born on February 2, 1928. He died on June 3, 2015, aged 87.