Painting Africa: Martin Woodcock 1935-2019

P1160359The birding world woke up last Sunday morning to learn that Martin Woodcock had died after a short illness. He and Barbara have been friends for more than quarter of a century, from a time when I was on the council of the African Bird Club, along with John Fanshawe, Gary Allport, Eng-Li and Paul Green and many others. Martin was our chair and later president of the society. Both he and Barbara were often fabulous hosts to meetings at their Kent home. Those occasions were always memorable. Later the Woodcocks moved to Blakeney in north Norfolk and for many years Barbara was our go-to girl for framing our paintings and art.

Everyone will tell you the same thing. They were, they are terrific people: kind, warm, modest, funny and lovable. This is a small tribute to Martin, on whom I wrote a short piece in 2005. Here’s the text:

“Some people are 50 years old and some are 70 years young. The wildlife artist Martin Woodcock might have the physical age of the second but he has the vitality of the first and has crammed into his three score and ten as much as most of us would achieve if we lived to be both ages added together. His work is currently part of the Norfolk Open Studios programme, which gives us a rare opportunity to meet the man and enjoy his artwork display at his Blakeney home.

My immediate impression on seeing the exhibition is the sheer variety of styles and materials. There are lovely loose pencil field sketches, intensely colourful oil works on wood, freer and more expressive water colours of Norfolk birds, such as a barn owl ghosting across an autumn landscape.


Perhaps my favourite is the painting of a small group of yellowhammers, whose dry metallic song – once known to every schoolchild as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – was once one of the defining sounds of drowsy summer evenings in north Norfolk. The yellowhammers are painted in acryllics, a medium with which the artist has a love-hate relationship (apparently the paint dries too quickly). Although it is typical of the man that despite these reservations he plunged headlong into experimentation with acryllics.

The result is a detailed and deeply intimate portrait that, because of the darkness and enclosed feel to the surrounding vegetation, intensifies the sulphur yellow of the birds. I also love the way in which the subjects’ brilliant colours are picked out, one by one, in the lichens and foliage detail of the setting. Despite the seeming incongruity between the yellowhammers and their gloomy deadwood perch, there is, in fact, a beautifully harmonious interplay. The work exemplifies the way that much more is often happening in a Woodcock painting than might immediately strike the eye.

The current exhibition gives a good insight into his artistic versatility, yet it will tell you very little about his passionate understanding of music, his attachment to reading – and writing – poetry, his love of photography. Nor will you find any hint that by the age of 40, this Kent-born naturalist wasn’t a professional artist at all, but a stockbroker in the city. Although his passion for wildlife had been in the blood since he was four and his first ever published drawing, exactly 50 years ago, was notably of a bird seen in north Norfolk.



a plate from a late book Safari Sketchbook: A Bird Painter’s African Odyssey, in which I had a small hand

His big break came when he was commissioned by the publishers Collins to produce the plates for a field guide. It was, in a sense, in his guise as illustrator, that I first met him 15 years ago in the forest of Thailand. He wasn’t there in person, but he was present in the latest of his book, A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, and indirectly he helped me to identify every bird that we saw throughout our month in the country.

Field guides are intriguing documents. Some become such close companions, particularly during a long journey, that they are much more than written accounts of a group of animals or plans. The relationship is well captured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Into the Heart of Borneo, where the author treats his copy of ‘Smythies’, his guide to Bornean birds, more like a sacred text. These books get covered in hand-scribbled notes and are so loaded with memories about the creatures that they helped you to recognise and the context  in which they were encountered . And the more thumbed and battered the guide, the more one treasures it later as a personal memento of the past. Eventually one can also come to regard the author as a sort of friend by proxy.


(Part of a couple of Martin’s plates for The Birds of Africa)

It is in this context that so many of us know Martin, because he is one of the most prolific illustrators of field guides in our time. His titles include a Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, The Birds of Oman, and the Gem Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. This last shirt-pocket-sized work has been in print for a quarter of a century and has sold perhaps as many as 500,000 copies.

Undoubtedly his most important contribution as an illustrator is his work for the seven volume The Birds of Africa. Just the vital statistics of the project should indicate the scale of his achievement. It took him more than 25 years to complete, it includes 220 plates of more than 5,000 bird figures and covers all the species of the entire continent. The quality of the workmanship evolved over the course of the project, but the whole set is remarkable and the plates in the final volumes include some of Martin’s finest work.


When I hear about the work of great nineteenth-century wildlife artists such as John Gould or J J Audubon, I am left in awe at the sheer stamina they showed for such huge multi-volume projects and wonder how on Earth they managed it. The Birds of Africa is a work created in much the same fashion. The key difference is that its artist is still very much with us and for one more week you can go along and meet him and ask how it was all done.”


I have two very fond memories of Martin and Barbara. One is from when I gave a speech of appreciation from us all when he stepped down as Chair of  African Bird Club. The second comes every time I lift my binoculars to look at the next wonderful wild creature or plant. Because a few years ago I bought Martin’s old Swarovskis. All naturalists will tell you how treasured their ‘bins’ are; mine are now doubly so.


Postcards from the Solomons No 1 Sharks at Fatboys

Before I saw Fatboys Resort, just east of Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, the name made me think of nightclubs and loud music on tropical beaches. It conjured images of suntanned young things with cocktails and leisure. Yet it wasn’t like that.Fatboys P1140051

The bar and restaurant were on a raised platform entirely surrounded by sea, approached by a jetty running 50 metres into the shallows. At the other end was a beach fringed with coconut palms. By day there was a kind of light show where the impossibly blue swell of the South Pacific, refracted and intensified against the white-coral sands, glanced up and played in shadow on the underside of the thatched roof.


There was also leisure and at lunch I liked to order a beer at the bar and walk to the restaurant’s open side to watch the reef fish. Mostly they were black-banded snappers (tosi in the local language), hand-length fish with inky blue stripes and yellow patches along their dorsal areas. They swayed beneath the platform, the colours quaking as they moved. Occasionally staff tossed breadcrumbs and what had been a loose shoal wandering through the water column became a writhing knot of sunlit colour and movement where the tosi massed at the surface.


By night, Fatboys was a lozenge of light over warm water, where we could relax amid after-dinner conversation and the click of the pot balls as the staff paced to play around a faded pool table.Fatboys P1140013

Yet a standard ritual of the evening was for spotlights to be turned on at the back and, as if summoned by some electrical messenger, the intended recipients suddenly seemed to gather before us. At first they were just dark shapes looming out of a wider darkness. These then hardened into fish, a metre and a half in length, shining grey like highly polished sandstone.

Their pectoral fins were long and scythe-shaped and, with their caudal fins, they carried black margins like edges ground into long blades. When the fish moved, the limbs swayed back and forth. Yet there seemed a disconnect between the sweet leisure of the parts and the quickness of the whole organism. The animals passed from one edge of the light to its furthest margins in a fraction of a second.


And when the fish guts hit the water, all converged. Half a dozen of them in one extraordinary melee of hunting prowess – perfected by that slow-chipping chisel wielded across 400 million years of evolutionary development – came together as a circle of black-finned reef sharks.


They were just a body’s length away from where we leaned to watch. They swerved and merged and crossed one another as smoothly as layers of oil. Their heads were thickened meat wedges. Occasionally a glass glint from a tiny eye shone up at us. They looked weaponised – precisely like the monsters that have haunted the Western imagination for centuries – but I was struck by none of the generic anxiety, nor the violence of their frenzied feeding. What hit me most was grace and beauty. Whenever they swept into the food, the speed of their movements created an effervescence where the water in front and around them was displaced. A momentary sheath of fizz curled about each fish, but it also survived as a fast-dispersing ghost of its last passage. Second by second the effects of all this changed but it wreathed the sharks in light and water and then played out on the surface of their sandstone bodies as a secondary set of fractal shadows.

Occasionally a dorsal fin broke the waters and fired a spray of droplets up at us. I caught one splash on my lips and could taste the salt of it. P1140046