Eric Ennion was born on 7th June 1900 at Kettering in Northamptonshire, the son of a country doctor. In 1904 the family moved to Burwell, nine miles
north-east of Cambridge, on the edge of the fens. There, Eric's father Octavius ran his country practice from the family home, Harlech House
at 'Doctor's Corner'. Eric was at first educated privately before attending the Perse School in Cambridge.
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, copying from books and making up his own 'plates'. Like many schoolboys in those days, he started an egg collection (and ones of butterflies and moths) but soon abandoned it, realising that it was far more interesting to leave the eggs in the nest and watch the progress of the brood.
The village birdcatcher-cum-poacher, who made a living from the cage bird trade and the 'sparrow money' he got from local farmers, was an early hero. Eric was also inspired by the countryside writings of Richard Jefferies – his book The Amateur Poacher was a particular favourite.
When Eric was perhaps 13 or 14 his father, who was not a shooting man or knowledgeable about natural history, arranged for a local gamekeeper to teach him to shoot. He also learnt essential fieldcraft – how to move quietly, how to use cover, how to keep still if need be.
After the Perse School he went to Epsom College in Surrey before going up to Cambridge in 1918 to read medicine at Caius College. He was a member of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club and was the Secretary in 1919-20 and Business Manager in 1920-21. He completed his medical training at St Mary's Hospital in London before joining his father's practice at Burwell in 1926.
Octavius' untimely death two years later meant that Eric had to take full responsibility for the practice far sooner than he would have wished. He also had a growing family to support. He had married Dorothy Parke in 1925 and their daughter Sheila was born the next year, followed by Juliet in 1929 and Hugh in 1932.
Eric's earliest paintings owe much to the book illustrations he saw 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. Bouverie Goddard's large oil of a horse-drawn fire engine, rushing dramatically towards a blaze, hung on the stairs at Harlech House. Eric's grandfather, Ambrose Goddard, was a sportsman naturalist who owned an impressive collection of stuffed birds which included a case containing five Pallas's Sandgrouse.
In his teens Eric had been taken to see the famous bird artist Archibald Thorburn, with the possibility of a career painting birds very much in mind. Thorburn advised that it was a risky business and it was agreed that Eric should follow medicine instead. But being a country doctor was surely just the means to an end – securing an income to support himself and his family whilst allowing him the freedom to study and paint birds, and to shoot.
In March 1926 there was a memorial exhibition of Frank Southgate's paintings at the Sporting Gallery in London and they were then reproduced in the book Wildfowl & Waders, published in 1928. Southgate painted with a wildfowler's eye and a freedom which was quite alien to the much better known Thorburn. By 1931 Eric was painting sizeable watercolours of waders which showed a heavy Southgate influence. By the mid 1930's he had found his own voice – a style which, in the years ahead, would evolve to become as individual as the man himself.
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.
During the 1930's Eric travelled widely in Britain to watch and sketch birds, generally taking his main holiday in the spring to do so. He went to Speyside in May 1931 and visited Loch More and Loch Ruthven, and in June 1935 he was on the Isle of Skye. In March 1939 he went to see the remnant population of Kites in central Wales. North Norfolk was a favourite haunt – indeed Hugh Ennion once remarked that one of the reasons he had been sent to school at Gresham's was the opportunities it gave his father to visit the Norfolk coast.
Eric also made two trips abroad in the 1930's. In 1930 he visited Texel and the Naardermeer in the Netherlands with Gibbs. In 1936 he went on his own to Iceland, sailing from Hull and taking a camouflaged tent with him. He returned with many memorable images, including delightful studies of Harlequin Ducks which he sketched and photographed "with a five-bob Baby Brownie" from a makeshift hide.
Meanwhile, Burwell Fen was becoming progressively wetter and more interesting. By the spring of 1937 it was so full of birds that Eric did not go away that May but pitched his tent on Reach Lode bank. Dorothy joined him for the second half of the holiday and they took a gun-punt along the Cam and the Great Ouse (which was in full flood) as far St Neots.
His family holidays and dedicated trips in search of birds enabled Eric to build up a comprehensive collection of field sketches which he supplemented with photographs culled from magazines. He continued to sketch in the field for the rest of his life 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.
Finding the time to paint on a larger scale was not easy but by April 1937 Eric had enough watercolours to mount his first one-man show of sporting pictures – "Game-birds, Duck & Various" – at the Greatorex Galleries in London. He had a further exhibition there in November that year and another in November 1938. He often painted late into the night and it may have been the need to produce pictures quickly for his exhibitions which prompted him to paint several in which detailed birds are set against fairly simple background washes.
Eric was also writing magazine articles, including a regular column on birds for the East Anglian Magazine illustrated with line drawings. He found it more difficult to get published in the main sporting periodicals but eventually struck up a fruitful relationship with Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald who had become editor of The Field in 1936.
During this time, and with the help of the gamekeeper Ernest Parr, Eric was running Burwell Fen and some of the surrounding farmland as a syndicate shoot – James Wentworth Day being a notable participant. Famously, Eric was called away from a shoot one day to attend an expectant mother. With the baby safely delivered, he left the cottage, carrying his gun, while a drive was in progress – just in time to shoot a partridge that was crossing high over the village green. His fellow guns swore that he'd shot it from the bedroom window!
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. During the war he also published The Animal World – Its Attack and Defence, a boldly illustrated book for children.
At the end of the war, with the National Health Service (and all its paperwork) on the horizon, Eric sold the medical practice, intending to earn his living as a freelance artist, writer and broadcaster. Instead, he took the opportunity to become the first warden of the pioneer Field Study Centre at Flatford on the river Stour in Suffolk, with his wife Dorothy running the domestic side.
Eric had been instrumental in persuading the National Trust to acquire Flatford Mill and suggested that it would make an ideal first Field Centre. He had helped Francis Butler when Butler was setting up the Field Studies Council and was ideally suited to the job of warden – an inspirational teacher with a warm, outgoing personality. He was also extremely practical; this was just as well as the organisation had very little money and there was much work to be done before Flatford was ready for its first students. He received no salary for the first year.
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 also published three more books, The Story of Migration (1947), Life on the Sea Shore (1948) and The Lapwing (1949), and illustrated several others. The Lapwing was the first of the Field Study Books series, published under the auspices of the Field Studies Council. Eric was the general editor and was very disappointed when the publishers, Methuen, withdrew from the project after just eight titles. Cambridgeshire, the book he wrote in The County Books Series, was published in 1951. 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.
Flatford was an undoubted success but birds had to take their place alongside all the other subjects studied and Eric was unable to realise his plan to establish a satellite ringing station nearer the coast. As the numbers of students grew, so did the dreaded burden of administration. It was time to move on.
Eric and Dorothy went to look at Monks' House, a rambling grey stone-built house in the dunes at Seahouses in Northumberland, on a November afternoon in 1949. Their search for somewhere to start their own privately run Field Centre and Bird Observatory was over – Eric would be his own boss once more. They finally left Flatford in November 1950 and Monks' House opened the following Easter.
The story of their ten years there is beautifully told by Eric in his book The House on the Shore, published in 1960. Dorothy again ran the domestic side and together they created the same magical atmosphere which had been the hallmark of their time at Flatford. Eric was usually up at first light – the habit of a lifetime. One visitor to Monks' House in the early years described him as "a dynamo".
Birds were the main focus of activity and Eric joined the Bird Observatories Committee of the BTO in 1951. He pioneered the trapping of waders for ringing and later the introduction of mist-nets, but he also ran field courses for sixth forms and college groups. Artists came, but not in the numbers that had stayed at Flatford; places on landscape sketching weeks were difficult to fill. Most independent visitors to Monks' House came for the birds – John Busby and Robert Gillmor among them.
Eric had been making radio broadcasts since the early 1940's and appeared regularly on programmes such as The Naturalist and Nature Parliament. He did not have much time to paint during the Monks' House years but he mounted an exhibition at Arthur Ackermann's in November 1956 which included a number of Lapland sketches from a trip earlier that year. Also included were several paintings intended as illustrations for a book on waders; regrettably it was not published. Eric and Dorothy visited Sweden in June 1959 and Eric held another exhibition at Ackermann's that year when he included some of the illustrations for The House on the Shore and others from his Countryman's Log articles in the fortnightly magazine Farm and Country. In 1958 he had published Bird Study in a Garden, a Puffin Picture Book.
By the late 1950's Seahouses was part of a thriving tourist area and it had become difficult to find domestic staff in competition with the local hotels and guest houses. Dorothy was exhausted. In spring and summer the areas near the observatory were also increasingly disturbed by holiday-makers but the decision to 'retire' cannot have been an easy one. No one could be found to take the observatory on and Monks' House closed to visitors in 1960. Eric and Dorothy spent the first two months of 1961 looking after a field station on Tenerife and at the end of May headed for the south of France to explore the Camargue and the Crau. In October they moved to their new home in the Wiltshire village of Shalbourne.
Eric served on the Council of the British Ornithologists' Union from 1959 to 1962 and he contributed the article on trapping (with two diagrams) to the BOU's A New Dictionary of Birds, edited by A Landsborough Thomson and published in 1964.
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.
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.
Eventually, Eric and Dorothy moved next door to a new home which was in part converted from the old watercress packing shed. Eric's studio overlooked the cress beds and the valley beyond. The local planning officer had tried to insist that Eric's studio window should face north to give the best light for painting. Of course, what Eric really wanted was the view, and he won the argument.
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. Both books were very well received but a planned third title on Oystercatchers did not go ahead after Tinbergen was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on animal behaviour and could no longer devote time to it.
In the 1970's Eric continued to paint and exhibit widely, and to run courses on wildlife and landscape painting. He was especially keen to encourage young artists. As Robert Gillmor wrote in his appreciation of Eric in British Birds, he was a natural teacher who inspired both an enthusiasm for the subject and a devotion to himself. The young gallery owner William Marler championed his work and together they published a fine series of limited edition prints.
Dorothy died suddenly in September 1978 at the age of 83. Eric was devastated. It was her constant support which had enabled him to realise his ambitions and there was no greater admirer of his work. Her favourite plates from the then unpublished Bird Man's River hung in the sitting room at Shalbourne where Curwen's Wildlife Calendar for 1974 displayed Eric's Red-backed Shrikes long after their month had ended – Dorothy cut the bottom sections off the pages rather than turn them and display pictures by other artists.
In the late 1970's Eric's eyesight began to deteriorate. He was not deterred and changed his style to accommodate it, drawing birds and mammals, often quite small, in landscape settings. As painting became more difficult he turned to writing again and planned a book on wildlife and landscape painting with his friend and pupil Geraldine Siggs. He died on 28 February 1981. He had been sketching in Savernake Forest only four days previously.
Broom-Lynne, Catherine. Obituary of Eric Ennion (with a note by Jim Bingley). Field Studies Council Annual Report, 1980.
Busby, John. The Living Birds of Eric Ennion. Victor Gollancz, 1982.
Ennion, Eric. Cottages in the Woods. In 'Holly Leaves', 1961.
Ennion, Eric. Doctor in the Butts. In 'Holly Leaves', 1966.
Ennion, Hugh. Obituary of Eric Ennion in The Times, 14 March 1981.
Gillmor, Robert. Obituary of Eric Ennion in British Birds, October 1982.
Hammond, Nicholas. Interview with Eric Ennion in Birds RSPB Magazine, March/April 1972.
Hammond, Nicholas. Twentieth Century Wildlife Artists. Croom Helm, 1986.
Humphreys, John. The Man Behind a Picture in Shooting Times and Country Magazine, June 1990.
Walthew, Bob. Eric Ennion: A Personal View. The Bury Press, 1983.
Images © The Estate of E A R Ennion
Text © Bob Walthew
A childhood drawing – birds copied from a book.
Honour amongst Thieves 385 x 285 mm. Dated 1921
Mallard 260 x 410 mm. Dated 1929
Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Knot and Purple Sandpiper. Dated 1931
Montagu's Harriers – Food Pass 350 x 390 mm. Dated 1934
Blackgame: Head of Loch Garry 450 x 345 mm. Exh. 1937
Woodcock: crossing the pattern of bare branches 280 x 450 mm. Exh. 1938
Herons – Walberswick Marshes, October 1947 260 x 355 mm.
Oystercatchers and Turnstones 260 x 370 mm. Exh. 1956
Curlew 265 x 355 mm. Exh. 1958
Tawny Owls 000 x 000 mm. 1963
Chiffchaffs just out of the Nest 310 x 250 mm. Exh. 1966
Wigeon 250 x 350 mm.
Goldeneye and Tufted Duck 230 x 320 mm.
Rough-legged Buzzard 110 x 215 mm. 1976
Kingfishers Courtship Feeding – mid-March Osiers 255 x 310 mm. 1977
Magpies and Stoat, Chute Causeway 280 x 370 mm. 1979