Donald Watson

Meticulous ornithologist and acclaimed wildlife artist with a spacious, vibrant style
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Donald Watson was one of Britain's foremost wildlife artists, who wrote important books including the classic monograph The Hen Harrier (1977) which detailed the biology and changing status of one of Britain's most threatened birds.

His delightful paintings of birds in Galloway and other upland districts attracted great acclaim, as did his evocative treatments of waders and wildfowl. Experienced field ornithologists marvelled at Donald Watson's ability to capture the essence of birds as part of the wild landscape. He wrote beautifully, too, and married his artistic and literary talents in books such as Birds of Moor and Mountains (1972), the autobiographical A Bird Artist in Scotland (1988) and One Pair of Eyes (1994).

The bird most associated with Watson was the hen harrier, one of the most striking of birds, yet persecuted in parts of Britain because of its tendency to take red grouse. He meticulously studied and recorded the breeding, hunting and roosting behaviour of the hen harrier; his monograph on the bird is now viewed as a classic combination of original bird study and art.

In the 1950s, widespread afforestation in Galloway brought a reduction in game preservation there, and with it the return of the hen harrier and golden eagle. However, as the forests matured, the resulting loss of important wildlife caused Watson to collaborate with his great friend Dr Derek Ratcliffe, of the Nature Conservancy, to press for the kinds of improvements in forestry practice which are now more common throughout the Scottish uplands.

Before he was five years old, when he could not even write their names, Donald Watson began to draw birds, copying some of the early pictures by Archibald Thorburn. In 1930, aged 12, Donald met Thorburn, who he later described as "smallish and with white hair and a neat white beard". Donald Watson spent his teens in Edinburgh, where he attended Edinburgh Academy from 1932 to 1937. During this period he spent many hours in the Royal Scottish Museum on Chambers Street, where his imagination was fired by the specimens donated by Eagle Clarke, a pioneer of migration studies.

In 1934, W.B. Alexander, possibly the only professional ornithologist in Britain not working in a museum, gave a brilliant lecture at Oxford on the Heligoland Bird Observatory. This stimulated Watson into helping plan and build the "Heligoland Trap", a device used for catching and ringing birds on the Isle of May, off the Fife coast. A year earlier, he had made his first visit there, where he met Dr Evelyn Baxter and Miss Leonora Rintoul, the authors of the celebrated two-volume book The Birds of Scotland (1953). More than 50 years later, a second edition of the book, Birds in Scotland (1986), was published, with Watson's magical painting of a black-throated diver brood under the watchful eye of a soaring golden eagle gracing the cover.

In Edinburgh, Watson came under the influence of George Waterston, one of the founding fathers of Scottish ornithology, who enrolled him in the Midlothian Ornithologists' Club, which developed into the Scottish Ornithologists' Club in 1936. A year later, he won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, and graduated with an honours degree in Modern History in 1940. His Second World War service began in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but he soon transferred to the Royal Artillery as a second lieutenant and subsequently was promoted to captain. Following various postings at home, he sailed in 1944 from the Clyde to India to join the 6th Medium Regiment in Bihar, from where his regiment moved east to take part in the autumn offensive in Arakan, Burma. Throughout his time in the Army, Watson continued to paint.

Watson returned home to Edinburgh in April 1946, where George Waterston introduced him to the Rev J.M. McWilliam and Arthur Duncan, two highly regarded ornithologists in Scotland. He wrote later that "by great good luck 'the Minister' was a sucker for bird paintings and did not need a masterpiece to make him burst into superlatives". Duncan invited the young artist to stay with him at Tynron in Dumfriesshire, where he began life as a professional artist. Inspired by his favourite bird artists, such as Joseph Crawhall, Allen W. Seaby, Eric Ennion and, of course, Thorburn, Watson came to be regarded as their equals. Although skilled in many methods, Watson settled largely on gouache, or watercolour used rather like oil paint, developing a spacious, vibrant style which began to characterise his work.

In April 1949, the Edinburgh art dealer Ronnie Wheatley gave Watson a one-man exhibition of over 100 of his pictures, which was critically acclaimed; others followed in London, Glasgow, Newcastle, Oxford, Dumfries and elsewhere. He also exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, the Water Colour Society, the Glasgow Institute and at the Royal Institute.

In 1962 he began a long series of bird illustrations for the Oxford Book of British Birds, which involved him painting a total of 96 colour plates, one every week for two years. He illustrated over 30 other books, perhaps most notably those in the Poyser series, where he collaborated with his friends Desmond and Maimie Nethersole-Thompson on Greenshanks (1979) and Waders (1986) and with Ratcliffe on The Peregrine Falcon (1980).

Donald Watson was a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists and was President of the Scottish Ornithologists' Club, 1969-72. He was local bird recorder in Galloway for some 30 years, where he was the "clearing house" for bird information.

Des Thompson