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Obituary: Gordon Beningfield

GORDON BENINGFIELD was an eloquent, influential advocate for the protection of the English countryside and its varied wildlife - and one of Britain's most talented, versatile wildlife and countryside artists.

A Londoner by birth, the eldest son of a Thames lighter-man, Beningfield showed a remarkable talent for drawing and painting from his earliest years, particularly in his drawings of Spitfires.

His academic career, in the village school at London Colney in Hertfordshire, where the family moved while the Second World War raged in London was, by his own admission, undistinguished. Nevertheless, his teacher, recognising his artistic talent, allowed him the opportunity to develop and on leaving school at 15 he was apprenticed as an ecclesiastical artist in St Albans, where his aptitude and ability to work with a wide variety of mediums - from stained and engraved glass to wood carving, bronze sculpture, gold leaf, watercolours and oils - was refined and encouraged.

In 1958 he married Betty Boyce, whom he had known since his early teens, and they set up home together in rural Hertfordshire. Beningfield worked hard to perfect his craft so that it seemed, to the casual observer, to be an easy thing to do, but the paintings, both in watercolour and oils, or the glass engraving and bronzes that issued from the large, overflowing shed in the garden, were the result of meticulous research, exemplary care and a love of and pleasure in his chosen subjects. By the mid-1960s his watercolour paintings of countryside subjects were in such demand that he took the decision to work for himself. His first London exhibition of wildlife paintings in 1967 was an outstanding success.

Since childhood he enjoyed watching and collecting butterflies and was an excellent field entomologist. This knowledge and his particularity of technique with watercolours led to the publication of his first book, Beningfield's Butterflies, in 1978. I remember a well-known gallery owner telling him "There's no market for butterfly pictures." Fortunately, Beningfield ignored this advice. The exhibition of original paintings from the butterfly book was sold out on the preview day, and buyers had to put their names in a hat and wait to see if they'd been successful in getting the picture they wanted.

It is not surprising that Beningfield's paintings should be sought-after - they are exquisite. He knew his subject so well that the butterflies seem almost to fly from the page. His work on butterflies and their vanishing habitats was recognised when he was invited to become President of the British Butterfly Conservation Society in 1989. His involvement in the society also led to a GPO commission in 1981 for a set of stamps depicting British butterflies, followed in 1985 by a further set of stamps showing British insects.

A natural broadcaster, Beningfield appeared on a number of television programmes. In the early 1970s he contributed to the series Look Stranger and some years later took part in several editions of the BBC Natural History Unit's In The Country series. He was an expert on 19th-century shepherds and their craft and contributed to One Man and his Dog. A film called A Brush with Hardy - about painting the pictures for Beningfield's book Hardy Country (1983) - was shown in cinemas around Britain in 1985.

Arguably one of the finest glass engravers this century, between 1972 and 1994 Beningfield created no less than eight memorial windows for the Guards Chapel. In recognition of his work, in 1995 he was elected a Freeman of the City of London and Liveryman of the Glass Sellers' Company.

Beningfield's public persona was that of a quiet, polite man, but he had a marvellous sense of humour and a schoolboy's wicked sense of fun. He was a delightful companion and until his final illness made it too difficult to travel far, he and I explored the English countryside together, particularly his beloved Dorset, Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Much of his finest work was inspired by the quiet coombs and deep ancient woodlands of the region between Dorchester and Bridport.

Fortunately for lovers of his work, he was prolific - producing paintings and drawings to illustrate books including Beningfield's Countryside (1980), Hardy Landscapes (1990) and Beningfield's Woodlands (1993). He illustrated several poetry books - Darkling Thrush (1985), Poems of the Countryside (1987), Green and Pleasant Land (1989) and Poems of the Season (1992). In 1994 he completed a pictorial autobiography Gordon Beningfield, The Artist and His Work. His last book was Beningfield's English Villages (1996) and he was working on a book of Beningfield's Vanishing Song Birds at the time of his death.

I first met Gordon Beningfield in 1968 at a fund-raising exhibition in aid of the World Wildlife Fund and even then his work stood out. Gordon himself did not look or act at all like the accepted 1960s stereotype of an artist. Tall, fair-haired and dressed in Harris tweed and highly polished brogues, he looked more the country solicitor or land agent. But his polite, seemingly diffident manner hid a steely determination to succeed both in art and in the conservation of his beloved English landscape, and when it came to the defence of the countryside he loved he was a doughty adversary. For someone who lacked a formal education he mastered the thrust and parry of debate impressively and caused politicians and members of the NFU alike to take notice.

His interests were many. He was an expert shot, stylish fly fisherman and a keen supporter of field sports - regarding them as an integral part of a healthy working landscape. He loved working dogs and owned a number of them, in particular deer hounds and border terriers. He had a life- long love of the Spitfire aeroplane; his interest in vintage cars too was long-standing and he owned two fine examples of early MG sports cars.

Beningfield Wood, planted four years ago on a Dorset hilltop, will mature and grow in stature as will Gordon Beningfield's reputation as one of Britain's finest wildlife and landscape artists, but for those who knew him, he will be remembered too as a delightful, generous person, a brilliant naturalist and a matchless companion.

Gordon George Beningfield, artist: born London 31 October 1936; married 1958 Betty Boyce (two daughters); died London 4 May 1998.