BOOK REVIEW / Wild creature comforts: Peter Scott: Painter and Naturalist - by Elspeth Huxley, Faber pounds 17.50
Sunday 07 November 1993
Elspeth Huxley's biography makes it clear that the first half of his life was a near-perfect grounding for the second. His father, Captain Scott of the Antarctic, had been a national hero, a brave adventurer whose exploits had brought millions into close spiritual contact with the most remote of wild places; he died when Peter was only two and a half. Peter's mother, from whom he inherited his artistic talent, was the society sculptress Kathleen Bruce, who also bequeathed him the indispensable knack of getting on with influential people.
By his late thirties, Peter Scott had already accumulated an unusual number of impressive achievements. He was a champion ice-skater, an Olympic yachtsman and a world-class competitive glider pilot. His naval exploits in the war make thrilling reading, and ring with echoes of his father's bravery of years before.
Scott's particular passion for wild and windswept estuaries and marshes arose through shooting, and most of the friends of his youth he met through wildfowling. Both as an adventurous wartime hero and as a lover of solitude in remoteness, he inspired the character in Paul Gallico's Snow Goose, and then had the talent to provide the illustrations for that book. He was a successful painter before he left Cambridge, and through his evocative pictures of ducks and geese sweeping in across watery open spaces he introduced millions of people to the spectacular beauty of some of Britain's most under-appreciated landscapes.
What consolidated Scott's popularity was the enthusiasm with which he took first to radio, then television. His BBC series Look, which ran from 1955 to 1970, helped to breed the first generation of armchair naturalists. The thrilling cry of the curlew was its signature tune, and it transported viewers into the remote places that were his passion. More than Armand and Michaela Dennis, with their big game hunting, more even than the young David Attenborough, his emphasis was on shared adventures. He was perhaps the first to realise that a lifelong love of nature comes through familiarity, and that in turn depends on access. His famous wildfowl centre, on the Severn estuary at Slimbridge, brought visiting families into close contact with wild birds. There are eight wildfowl and wetland centres in Britain now, which offer a link with the world's migrating wildlife, sophisticated scientific research, cream teas, easy parking and creature comforts.
Although the paintings and the hugely popular wildfowl centres are Peter Scott's most obvious legacy, Elspeth Huxley shows just how wide his role in modern conservation has been. With Max Nicholson and others, he helped to found the World Wildlife Fund. He invented the practical techniques for trapping and ringing migratory birds. He lobbied all his life for better legal protection, and helped secure the Ramsar convention which protects wetlands worldwide. He addressed a rally in Trafalgar Square, in 1979, on the eve of the International Whaling Commission which helped establish the Indian Ocean as a sanctuary and paved the way for the moratorium three years later. On that occasion, his well- proven combination of science and emotion worked as powerfully as ever - a passionate plea to learn all we could from the whales was followed by two minutes' silence, broken only by the now familiar recordings of whales 'singing'.
Above all, this book confirms that Peter Scott was a man who never missed an opportunity to further the cause of conservation. He was a charming wheeler-dealer with an amazing ability to recruit support from even the most unlikely quarters. It is a very difficult act to follow, but thanks to his achievements there are huge numbers of eager twitchers and passionate amateur environmentalists following in his footsteps, and Elspeth Huxley's account of his life will help them all to keep the flame alive.
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