Land Marks and Sea Wings
“The author’s photograph used on the dust jacket for this lovely volume of paintings depicts the artist looking a remarkable twenty to thirty years younger than his true age. Perhaps it’s this famous vitality that has allowed John Busby, now well into his eighth decade, to sustain a reputation as one of the three or four most renowned wildlife artists in Britain today. Possibly it is this same gift of youth that has also enabled him to maintain so impressive an output over half a century. For many wildlife publishers, Busby is still the artist of choice to deliver the agreed quota of line drawings, small and flexible enough to fit into margins or headers, all bearing the necessary emphasis on simple, precise line for ease of reproduction, yet still radiating that sense of living intensity which enables his artwork of birds, flowers, mammals and insects to lift even the driest scientific text.
To date, the illustrations have appeared in over seventy books, yet strangely this is the first major volume in which Busby has made a selection of his own work. It spans his entire career from the 1950s, and includes all his favoured media, particularly oil, pencil and watercolour. For good measure, we have a substantial body of text in which the artist explores his own preoccupations and influences. While he is undoubtedly best known as a painter of wildlife (and equally, as a teacher of other wildlife artists), the title of Landmarks and Sea Wings is an attempt to draw into the foreground Busby’s other great passion – for landscape. Brought up in north Yorkshire, he has had an abiding love for the countryside around the Yorkshire dales and the paintings, which are largely executed in oils, depict either these places of childhood like Malham and Wharfedale, or scenes from around his adopted home in Lothian, Scotland.
Busby’s places are usually viewed from great distance or height, at which range they seem to resolve into a pleasing simplicity. As in his wildlife sketches, there is also a deep preoccupation with line. Dry-stone walls, avenues of trees, folds and creases across the field, the brow-line of hilltops, the meandering course of a river all these help to create the complex geometry that divides his canvas and into which Busby inserts simple flat planes of colour. His notion of what constitutes landscape is enormously catholic, as shown by a recent sequence of oils devoted to rock pools found on the beach at Tyninghame near his home. Busby 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.
All naturalists, from Neolithic hunter-gathers to modern wildlife painters, seem ineluctably drawn to ecotones, those borders between different major habitats that are often the most productive parts of nature. Busby’s ecotone of choice is shoreline, and almost all the chapters in this book narrate experiences on small islands such as the Galapagos, Falklands, Aldabra, Mykonos and Crete. One particular favourite is that singular tooth of volcanic lava in Busby’s home territory, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. The edges between land and sea seem not only to satisfy his artistic love of line, they also hold the birds that most appeal to Busby the ornithologist. Seabirds, waders, gulls and terns are favourites and are probably the subject for which he is best known.
The classic Busby signature in these bird drawings is clarity of line coupled with a deep awareness of avian anatomy in the process of movement. Witty and playful, the sketches also convey an impression of having been completed at furious speed, as if that were the only way to capture all the momentary intensity of birds in flight. His oil paintings of gannets over the Bass Rock or fishing boobies in the Galapagos are among the most beautiful images in this collection.
Busby’s preoccupations reflect the strong influence of his mentor, Eric Ennion, whose own posthumous reputation owes much to a book written by Busby himself (The Living Birds of Eric Ennion). In fact, one of the younger man’s greatest achievements is to have converted Ennion’s personal influence on him into what amounts almost to a school of wildlife painters. Through his decades of teaching at Edinburgh College of Art and elsewhere, Busby has helped to shape some of the most important contemporary practitioners, like Greg Poole and James McCallum. The present volume demonstrates that Busby is both an inspirational teacher and a major artist in his own right”
Mark Cocker writing in the Times Literary Supplement 2nd February 2007