Ennion Drawn from life

Ennion Drawn from life

Ennion eight owls

Nigel Ede

Nigel Ede in the early 1990's.

Hugh Ennion with his father
at their joint exhibition at the
West Mills Gallery,
Newbury, October 1976

Birds and Seasons

A Memoir by Bob Walthew

Click on the flyer images in the margin to enlarge and see related text.

I met Nigel Ede, the founder of Arlequin Press, for the first time in 1992 – in a queue outside the Wildlife Art Gallery in Lavenham. He was in pole position and I was two or three places behind him. We exchanged a few words as we waited for the opening of the Drawn from Life exhibition on a beautiful June morning. It was unclear how long Nigel had been there but he was relaxing in a folding chair, reading the Sunday papers. The gallery was at the north end of the High Street in those days and no advance sales were made from the catalogue. It turned out that he and I were in pursuit of different pictures but that they were by the same artist – Eric Ennion.

Our paths crossed again when I rang a Chelmsford telephone number in response to a two-line advertisement in British Birds: "Donald Watson, John Busby, original book illustrations for sale." A short way into our conversation the voice at the other end of the line said "I know you…"

Nigel launched Arlequin Press in 1993 to publish fine limited edition wildlife art books. John Busby’s superb Nature Drawings was the first title and Donald Watson was already lined up for what became One Pair of Eyes. Nigel thought there was just space to do another book in between. If I could put together a book of Eric Ennion’s work and have it ready in six months – by the end of March – he would publish it. I had a full-time job and family commitments but I was sure it could be done. This was an opportunity not to be missed – Eric had tried desperately to get such a book published in the last years of his life but no mainstream publisher was prepared to take it on and at that time it would have been prohibitively expensive to publish it privately.

Eric’s son, Hugh Ennion, greeted the proposal with characteristic enthusiasm and I arranged to go down to Shalbourne for what proved to be a memorable and productive day. I took with me all the Ennion originals I had been able to locate locally and we arranged them along the walls of Hugh’s studio, alongside pictures from his own collection which he brought over from the house. It was, as Hugh remarked, almost certainly the largest exhibition of his father’s work since his death, albeit one that lasted only a few hours. The picture of a Scots Pine near Worlington, painted by his father in 1935, brought back a flood of memories: it had hung in the family home at Burwell when Hugh was a child and this was the first time he had seen it in many years.

Ennion Scots Pine

Scots Pine near
20.iii.35 (pm)
210 x 280 mm

I had taken a draft agreement with me for Hugh to look at. It was typical of his generous nature and his wish to be absolutely fair that his only comment was that the royalty Nigel proposed to pay was too much.

There was just one problem: the succession of trial pages I showed to Nigel clearly left him underwhelmed. He was very encouraging, making suggestions as to how I might develop my ideas, but it was obvious that he didn’t think we yet had the makings of a good book. Nigel’s partner, Fiona Barclay, went as far as to ask what the point of the book was. Privately, I was outraged – surely the world was crying out for a book of Eric Ennion pictures, what more did we need? Of course Fiona was right, books need a theme: a parade of pictures doesn’t really make a satisfying book on its own. Did Eric keep a diary, Fiona asked. Not one that could be of use to us I thought, just an ordinary appointments diary in which he briefly scribbled anything of note.

Whatever form the book was to take, there was clearly a lot of work to be done. In those days I was a keen twitcher and in October I used to spend two weeks on the Isles of Scilly, often sharing a flat with Simon and Pat Cox. In the past I had been very critical of birders who just relaxed in their accommodation waiting for other people to find the rarities. Not any more! I sat in the flat reading through photocopies of the Countryman’s Log – the fortnightly magazine articles written by Eric in the 1950’s and 60’s – marking up promising sections of text. My CB radio was perched on the window sill, relaying the news from across the islands, and when good birds were found I rushed out to see them and returned as quickly as I could – ticking and running, another practice I’d frowned on in the past.

I didn’t have to read far to realize that the Countryman’s Log was Eric’s diary – most of the articles were based on his experiences at the time – and because he both painted and wrote ‘from life’ many pieces complemented individual paintings that we already had. The book was coming together at last and I realized that by using some of the reminiscences in the Log, and articles from the 1930’s which had appeared in the East Anglian Magazine, it would be possible for Eric to tell his own story – as close to the book being directly authored by him as it was possible to get.

We still needed many more pictures and I knew next to nothing about book design. Robert Gillmor’s advice in both areas proved invaluable. The formula of two pages with text, followed by a ‘plate’ and a blank page, was Nigel’s idea – it echoed the colour plate books of the past and at the time, made economic sense.

Valerie Shirley also provided valuable support and encouragement. She had been a friend of the Ennions for many years and was a regular on Eric's courses at Weyhill in the mid 1970's, her great sense of fun never far below the surface. Eric had given her a charming study of grey and white wagtails as a house-warming present when she moved to Kintbury and I was also able to include her lovely bee-eater picture in the book.

Ennion Wagtails

Grey and White Wagtails –
150 x 230 mm

Almost everyone I contacted had fond memories of Eric and his wife Dorothy and was eager to help; several owners subsequently went to enormous trouble to enable us to include their pictures in the book. A visit to William Marler, who had championed Eric’s work at his galleries in Ludlow and Cirencester, produced one of the most important contributions: a set of transparencies assembled when he and Eric had been hoping to publish a similar limited edition book.

There remained the question of who should write the introduction. We considered various possibilities. John Busby – whose drawings Eric admired above all others – would have been an obvious choice but he had already written extensively about Eric in The Living Birds of Eric Ennion. I was perhaps keener to write the introduction myself than my experience (or lack of it) warranted but I had generous help from Hugh and from Robert Gillmor who encouraged me to make it as comprehensive as possible. Nigel showed great courage in allowing me to write it; my recollection is that he was keen not to see a draft and read it only after Robert assured him that it would pass muster. When the book was reviewed in British Birds, Nigel expressed surprise that no mention was made of either me or the introduction but it had always been my intention that this should be ‘Eric’s book’.

Although Nigel had a written contract with Eric’s family, his arrangement with me was purely verbal – a ‘gentleman’s agreement’. This worked very well and we had only one falling out; it was over the cost of photography. I was very keen to include some of the Brownsea Island pictures which Eric had given to the National Trust. The warden on Brownsea could not have been more helpful but Trust headquarters insisted that we use their nominated photographer – at ridiculous expense. I knew that Nigel would never agree to it so, unforgivably, I didn’t tell him. When I handed him the bill he went ballistic. I was taken completely by surprise, having convinced myself in the meantime that it was money well spent. The storm was intense and entirely justified, but very brief and of course it taught me a valuable lesson.

Getting pictures photographed was a major undertaking. Robert Gillmor made arrangements for some of them to be done in Reading and many of the rest were handled for us by The Wildlife Art Gallery. There remained a hard core that were a logistical nightmare, especially as some owners were reluctant to part with their pictures for more than a few hours. One day I collected pictures from three separate locations in the southwest and took them to Cheltenham. There they went from the picture framer (who de-framed them), to the photographer next door, and then back again for reframing. I returned them all to their respective owners later the same day and headed home to Suffolk. On another occasion, Robert waited on the platform at Reading station to be handed a picture as the train stopped briefly on its way to London.

We knew that there was a good reason why a book like this had not been published before: people who like Eric Ennion’s work are often passionate about it but, unlike some of his contemporaries, Eric had never enjoyed recognition from a wider public. Any doubts Nigel may have had about the wisdom of publishing Birds and Seasons were dispelled when Eric’s family generously made available the pen and ink illustrations which enabled the first fifty-five copies to be produced half-leather bound, each containing an original sketch.

In February I went down to Shalbourne again to show Hugh the proof of the flyer which was about to be printed and distributed with British Birds. When he read the reference to fifty-five copies, each containing an original pen and ink drawing, he said "These aren’t coming back are they? Surely I didn’t agree to that". I didn’t know what to say: completely out of the blue, it looked as if the whole project was about to fall apart. After a few moments I was able to describe the typescript of the unpublished Field Study Book Flight in Bird and Plane which contained the pen and inks Hugh had offered previously. "Oh those!" he said, going straight over to the drawer where he kept it, "of course you can have those". He had forgotten about them and thought that the reference was to the exquisite watercolour sketches from the 1930’s – an early symptom of the Alzheimer’s disease which was to affect him more seriously within only a few short years.


We had difficulty deciding how best to mount these small original pen and ink drawings in the first fifty-five copies of the book. Nigel's discussions with the binders suggested that the only realistic option was to paste them below the half-title – the line drawing of a wren which occupied this key position at the start of Birds and Seasons would have to go. I was dismayed: were we really going to destroy the opening sequence of three wren drawings and leave this space blank in the remaining 945 copies? Nigel produced a most elegant solution to the problem. Each drawing would be mounted on a slip of paper, glued only along the left-hand edge, so allowing the wren to remain. Better still, Hugh would authenticate each one. His neat hand complemented his father's work perfectly.

I climbed the narrow stairs to Arlequin’s small office in Chelmsford many times but no visit was more memorable than the day advance copies of the book were delivered. Without saying anything, Fiona slipped across to the pub and returned some minutes later with three sparkling glasses so we could toast the new arrival. It had been the product of late nights, weekends and annual leave. Not too dissimilar, I thought, from how Eric had had to paint and write in the 1930’s. The book was launched at The Wildlife Art Gallery in Lavenham in June 1994 at an exhibition which included some of Eric’s working drawings and watercolours.

Birds and Seasons could not have been produced without the goodwill and generous help of a large number of people, not least of course, Eric’s family. Hugh had been wonderfully supportive throughout, giving me all the help I needed but content to let me get on and realize the book along the lines we had discussed. He was delighted with it.

The only disappointment was with some of the colour reproduction. The book was produced just before the advent of digital technology and Eric’s frequent use of grey or brown paper, which in many cases has browned or darkened over the years, made it difficult to get the balance right on some pictures. The problem was compounded by the paper chosen for the book. It was of superb quality but the ink tended to sink in rather than sit on the surface - a less absorbent paper would have given the pictures more depth. It’s tempting to look back and say "If only…" but much better, I think, to enjoy what we have: a beautifully produced book which, if the opportunity had not been taken in 1993, might never have been published.

Arlequin went on to produce a fine series of limited edition wildlife art books – and a superb portfolio of original prints of owls – but it was their birdwatching site guides that paid the rent. Nigel had spotted a gap in the market and, with Fiona’s help, exploited it to good effect. The wildlife art books were a wonderful achievement but sales were often slow after the initial burst of interest on publication. For Nigel, they were a labour of love that did not always make commercial sense. In retrospect he thought that a thousand copies was too many: the edition sizes should have been smaller and the prices correspondingly higher.

Fiona described to me, with some feeling, how on one occasion, as Nigel set off to look at a potential project, she advised him that on no account should he agree to do it. He must have known that particular book would have very limited appeal but he loved the work and he agreed to publish it. The book was, as Fiona had predicted, a commercial disaster but the world would be a much duller place without people who are prepared to take such risks.

A keen collector of books and paintings who was always on the lookout for a bargain, Nigel was passionate about wildlife art and he had a very good ‘eye’. His enthusiasm for loose and free work, much of which I had previously dismissed, influenced me greatly – just as, in the 1970’s, Eric Ennion’s enthusiasm had led me to appreciate the work of John Busby.

Nigel’s long and brave battle with cancer ended in August 2003. He was 55 and his death came with shocking suddenness. Before illness dragged him down he was irrepressible – charming but volatile, an inveterate gossip with a wicked sense of humour, always happy to chat on the phone or over a cup of coffee and usually with an amusing story to tell, often from the world of wildlife art. My favourite memory of him is of a chance meeting in the gallery at Lavenham where he’d called in to see Andrew Haslen. With typical indiscretion he recounted a very private tale about a mutual acquaintance, ending with the words "I’ve no idea why he told me". Andrew replied: "I expect it was because he knew it wouldn’t go any further!"

Eric Ennion

Eight by Eight Owls flyer © Arlequin Press / Robert Greenhalf

Birds and Season's flyer © Arlequin Press / The Estate of E A R Ennion

Photograph of Nigel Ede © Fiona Barclay

Other images © The Estate of E A R Ennion

Text © Bob Walthew

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