Growing up in Victoria, B.C., Fen Lansdowne and I became friends in our early teens. I used to bike over to his place on Sunday mornings where his mother would take us out birding in their ’47 Ford. Later, when we got our drivers’ licenses, we left town and travelled on our own in B.C. and the Western U.S.A. Even as a kid, Fen was a great field man, rapidly learning taxonomy and developing a keen spotter’s eye. Ours was an Arcadian friendship of birding, netting butterflies and sharing the joy of new species. We recorded the first Sage Grouse seen in decades in B.C., saw early Caspian tern migrants and discovered new nesting sites of shrikes and bushtits.
Encouraged by his mother and people at the Provincial Museum, Fen was painting birds at age 13. Right from the get-go Fen could really draw. He didn’t lean on photos, but rather assembled and designed individual bird portraits from his considerable field knowledge and his own elegant sense of composition. Further, Fen had an uncanny ability with colour. Self-trained and determined, he was nothing short of genius in the art of colour mixing and matching–a tough order when dealing with muted feathers or iridescents such as the gorget of hummingbirds. Even in those early years his work began to rival and exceed the great masters of bird art.
Fen is a brilliant example of what can be done by an intelligent person working alone. A victim of childhood polio and never without his crutches, Fen turned his limitations to assets. When options are limited, focus becomes more likely.
Fen passed away, aged 70, on the 26th of July, 2008. He was one of the significant artists Canada has produced. His work is collected worldwide. Numerous books and museum collections insure his reputation will continue.
Fen used to get what he called “bloody minded.” He could be bitter and dismissive. Some thought it was his intelligence and sharp wit that saved him from depression. But Fen also had an overriding dream of independence and a desire to make good. It was his art that saved him. His central love and abiding joy, it was the key to his self-esteem and self-worth.
PS: “The honouring of specificity is no small job indeed.” (Fen Lansdowne)
Esoterica: Wildlife art is a special calling, with many practitioners and few masters. Watching Fen at work, analyzing his drawing and his watercolour processes, I came to realize that his goal was to understand what he was looking at. He wanted to know how a claw worked, how a head was cocked, how a wing achieved its power. More than an abiding love of Nature, it was a deep feeling of respect and the strong desire to simply get it right.
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Your statement, “When options are limited, focus becomes more likely” is so true. Focus in our own art development is crucial. Sometimes I think we are so interested in what and how others are achieving their paintings that we fail to focus on our own way of painting. Maybe it comes down to lack of belief in our ability. Perhaps we just need to put down all those how-to books and focus on what is inside our souls.
(RG note) Thanks, Gwen. For his whole life Fen was well aware of the worldwide competition. He divided it into threatening and non-threatening. He maintained a lifelong correspondence and developed deep friendships with the serious contenders. He admired the work of painters dead and alive: Archibald Thorburn, John James Audubon, Athos Menaboni, Robert Bateman and others. The great New Zealand bird painter Raymond Ching, born the same year as Fen, was a lifelong friend and once flew from Auckland to London to attend one of Fen’s shows at the Tryon Galleries.
Focus is key
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
I’m sorry your friend died so young, yet what an amazing body of work he left behind. What beautiful paintings, and what a beautiful tribute! Your friendship must have been a gift to him. I loved two points you made in your essay: That few options sometimes creates greater focus, and that art is a way for us to understand what we see better. To enlarge on your ideas, perhaps creative endeavors are ways for all artists — visual, musicians, dancers, gardeners, etc. — to better understand our world, our lives. Maybe our work even helps us make better choices about the role we play in that world. It has for me! You’re also right that the more opportunities and paths I see, the harder it is to choose which ones to follow. Focus is key. Thank you for not only illuminating your artist friend’s life, but shining a light on my own.
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Friends and influences
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
My late mother was from Victoria (and I am too!!), and she told me of Fenwick Lansdowne’s work when I was a teenager. She ordered the first prints (reproductions) that MacLean’s magazine put out of his paintings of birds in the fifties, the Western Meadowlark, Kingfisher, Cooper’s Hawk, etc. I still have that folio. The paintings are exquisite, as fine as Audubon’s, I think. I always was impressed at my mother’s ability to zero in on significant things, she was not a well educated woman but a very bright and sensitive one.
I had read of Fenwick’s demise recently in the Globe and Mail and was reminded of my small collection of prints. Thank you for also commemorating this man. He truly is a great artist and deserves recognition for his contribution in the field of bird painting. He was dedicated to his exacting pursuit of perfection in what he saw and captured. How wonderful that you had a personal connection to him, and are also an artist! I am sure you had influence on each other, too, in your respective fields. One never knows how one has touched another soul in their journey. We are a mix of so many influences and experiences. It is all so exciting and it is an adventure, for sure!
Give praise also to living artists
by Helen Tilston, Toronto, ON, Canada
What a beautiful tribute to your friend, Fen. How sad that Fen is not around to read such special memories and compliments on his work from a dear and good friend. Having attended several funerals in recent years and hearing beautiful memories of the dead, such as you have presented, I keep asking myself, “Why, Why? Why? Do we wait till our friends are dead to tell them how great they are/were?” Let’s break that tradition and start to give praise to our living artists too. I can only imagine the permanent joy and delight such a eulogy would give to the recipient.
(RG note) Thanks, Helena. Fen and I broke bread many times and celebrated his accomplishments, new books out, Order of Canada, etc. Throughout his life, he accumulated a number of well wishers and admirers, as well as passionate collectors, and while he was a very private guy, he thrived on it.
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Leaving behind a legacy
by Brian Reifer, England
Sorry you lost your friend and that we all lost an outstanding nature artist; but his work will live on. If only we could all leave something behind that remained to give pleasure to future generations and provided an incentive for others to pick up a brush or pencil.
(RG note) Thanks, Brian. Fen was conscious of the big picture, his legacy. Funnily, he thought the Internet to be just one of mankind’s passing, frivolous foibles. Fen was particularly concerned with endangered species, and was always thrilled to see any kind of wildlife. “Just to know they’re still there,” he used to say. It was always my feeling that he was simply honoured to have done his part in recording what he could.
Insight into a master at work
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada
I was glad to see your tribute to Fenwick Lansdowne and found it most interesting that you had known each other years ago. I feel he was unsurpassed as a painter of birds. One of the things I treasure about books featuring his art — such as Birds of the Northern Forest — is the pages that show the preliminary drawings — an insight into a master at work. His passionate interest and love for his subjects come through his art so very strongly.
Importance of field work
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Your friend was one of the rare people that have genius. A genius has tremendous innate ability, that coupled with tremendous desire and effort produces results that rise high above the rest. There are many wildlife artists, some with terrific skills, but very few who get the feeling and personality of the bird and can combine it with the verve and design of great painting. Even in the youthful painting of the kestrel, I can easily see that Lansdowne was a special artist in the tradition of John James Audubon, who I think is the greatest bird painter of all time. Like Audubon, Lansdowne was a field naturalist and scientist. A photo of a Kestrel will not show you what makes a Kestrel special. A field naturalist knows a lot more about how they hover over a field and how they move so swiftly down to the ground to grab a mouse, small bird or insect. A field naturalist will know and love the fierceness and spunk of this mini falcon. This knowledge coupled with genius will give his work another level of authenticity. Lansdowne was astute in that he followed his passion and pursued it in his art. In doing so, he achieved greatness very few of us artists will achieve.
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
Wow. I am speechless about his art work. It is good to learn that gifted artists in all genres abound and fill our lives with richness. I do think that depression has a number of causes, not the least of which is closely related to sensitivity and overcoming difficulty. Depression is its own difficulty, sometimes appearing as impossible to live with.
Wildlife art calling
by Sandy Bonney, Brookings, OR, USA
I agree with you that “Wildlife art is a special calling.” I spent 13 years as an Animal Keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo. In fact, I was one of the first women hired back in the days when women were not considered capable of working with ‘larger’ animals. It is the up close and personal observation and the intimate, hands-on experience that few get to experience that enables an artist to ‘know’ what goes on under the feathers and fur of the different animals one is privileged to portray. Maggie is the African River Hippo at the LA Zoo. She was born at the Colorado Springs Zoo and is 45 years old. She was moved from the old Griffith Park Zoo to the new Los Angeles Zoo in October 1966. I got to swim in her pool before she did!
by Sherry Shelton, Clute, TX, USA
My thoughts and prayers go out to you for your loss. I can read between the lines and know what it is like to lose a dear artist friend. One comes to mind ‘as we speak.’ I miss her terribly… and our in-depth conversations about our art. I didn’t know Fen… but I feel the emptiness his death has created. I thank you for sharing your thoughts of him.
Lansdowne spirit in gold
by Robert Chaplin, Victoria, BC, Canada
In mythology, the Soul, or Atman, is represented by a bird. I made this ring design, a bird in flight, in rose gold. I posted it on my blog to honour the memory of Fenwick Lansdowne. Fen was my colleague, a fellow RCA, sadly now he is gone. Early on, Fenwick contracted polio, and lost the use of one side of his body. Fenwick raised a family and painted birds perfectly. Fenwick began painting birds while very young, and he finished at almost seventy-one. A life well lived indeed! I didn’t get to meet you Robert at Fenwick’s memorial, there were so many people. I left soon after the speeches.
Lansdowne cigar cards
by Judy Lalingo, Jarrettsville, MD, USA
In all of my moves in life, I have hung onto a little box of my favourite things. It’s a stash from my days as a youngster. One of my prizes is a collection of bird cards, illustrated by Fen Lansdowne, which were produced and distributed by White Owl cigars. My dad loved his cigars, but I get the feeling that he smoked this particular brand during that time just to accommodate me in my collecting habits. During these many years, I’ve added several publications of Lansdowne’s bird art to my book collection. Regarding your thoughts on focus, this is not only about the art… it is about true love and devotion to the subject. I will acknowledge that great art transcends subject matter, but then again, some of us need that star, that love, to pull us through our art.
Enjoy the past comments below for Bird man…
Flight at Sundown, American Wigeon
acrylic painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Diane Voyentzie of CT, USA who wrote, “What a beautiful tribute to your friend… and a lasting reminder to us all. We are here in body for such a short visit, but our spirits live on…”
And also Suzanne Clark who wrote, “I am very sorry to hear that you lost your friend to the next reality. It sounds like you two had a good time as young men and appreciated each other through a lifelong friendship.”
And also Valerie Norberry who wrote, “Fen’s detachment from larger society in general actually allowed him more time to create. Hell, if he had answered every Tupperware party invite, etc., he’d never get anything done, although he might have some cute little cups for his paint.”
And also Gerri Bloomberg of Shelburne, VT, USA who wrote, “I don’t know you, but when your letters arrive on my screen it is if an old friend is writing. Today, in particular, I appreciated your sharing the life and work of your very talented friend. You must have had very special times together as kids in the sharing of your art and discovering the world. I am sorry for your loss.”