Obituary: Bertram E. Smythies

Gathorne Cranbrook
Sunday 25 July 1999 23:02

ALTHOUGH A forester by profession, and a botanist by preference, twice while working in South-East Asia Bertram E. Smythies undertook the arduous task of researching and compiling a comprehensive handbook on the birds of the locality where he was currently serving (Burma and Borneo). These books are towering landmarks in the development of the regional ornithology.

At the culmination of his forestry career, he compiled a slim guide to the non-dipterocarp trees of Sarawak. Finally, in retirement he co- operated with Oleg Polunin to produce the definitive field guide to the flora of south-west Europe, illustrated most effectively by his late wife Jill's capable line drawings and their own and others' photographs.

Bertram Evelyn ("Bill") Smythies was born in 1912 at Naini Tal, Uttar Pradesh, in India, where his father, Evelyn, was Assistant Conservator of Forests. He was born into the traditions of the forest service of India. Both parents were enthusiasts of the jungle tour and big-game hunting. His mother, Olive, in her first and best-known book, Tiger Lady (1953), recorded how the three-month-old baby was incorporated into camp life with his own entourage of ayah, manservant and cow (with calf at foot). When he was eight, this life came to an end when he was - as tradition dictated - sent "home" to school.

At Balliol, Oxford, Smythies read Forestry. After graduating he joined the Colonial Forest Service and took up duties with the Burma Forest Service in November 1934. Here, in collaboration with H.C. Smith, he was drawn into the task of writing the text for The Birds of Burma, illustrated by a gifted amateur bird artist, Lt-Cdr A.M. Hughes RN, then working with the Rangoon Port Commission. The story of the first edition is told in the preface to the second. Smythies wrote the text in nine months, between 1 January and 7 October 1940, "carrying out my normal duties as a forest officer at the same time".

It was published (in an edition of 1,000 copies) by the Mission Press, Rangoon, and on sale by New Year's Day 1941. Most copies were bought by Europeans living in Burma. Left behind in the mass evacuation as the Japanese advanced in 1942, as many as possible were later collected by the Japanese authority and shipped to the library of the Royal Veterinary College, Tokyo. Unfortunately, this building and its contents were subsequently destroyed in an air-raid.

The original pictures, Smythies recalled however, were "rolled up in a bundle and taken out to India by Mrs [H.C.] Smith when she left Burma by air, as part of the 30lb of kit allowed to evacuees". On 19 February 1942, two days before the final evacuation of Rangoon, Smythies himself ransacked the deserted Mission Press, managed to find 21 (out of 32) sets of four copper blocks from which each coloured plate was printed and, with the help of Lt-Cdr E.J. Dunkley of the Burma Navy, shipped these to India.

They ultimately reached Kathmandu, where his father was by then Conservator of Forests, Nepal. Thus were rescued the irreplaceable illustrations and most of the blocks, enabling Smythies to prepare the book's revised and enhanced successor, the second edition published in 1953 by Oliver & Boyd. A new edition, in large format, was later published by Nimrod Press (and a further one is planned), but the second has remained a collector's item.

From India, Smythies returned to wartime Burma with the Chindit expedition, serving with honour as Civil Affairs Officer behind enemy lines under Orde Wingate and Bernard Fergusson. Post-war, he resumed his civilian duties until, on 4 January 1948, Burma left the British Commonwealth and terminated the services of all European officers.

Thus, after a short break at Castle Morris, Tralee, Co Kerry, in Ireland, where his parents had settled in 1947, Smythies was posted to the forest service of Sarawak. On his arrival in the state in February 1949, he recorded that Tom Harrisson, Curator of the Sarawak Museum, "suggested then that I would sooner or later have to write a book on the birds of Borneo". The project was encouraged by the Governor, Sir Anthony Abell, and given financial backing by the Dato' Loke Wan Tho, who sponsored the ornithological work of the Sarawak Museum and supported an expedition by the British Museum (Natural History) in 1956 to Sabah (then British North Borneo).

To build up the bird collections, volunteers were trained in basic taxidermy at the Sarawak Museum. From these young men, dispersed state-wide to their villages or longhouses, skins of the birds arrived at Kuching by the hands of intermediaries, in packages of diverse kinds, often moderately prepared and with scraps of field data scribbled in a variety of dialects on tags attached to the legs. Bill Smythies was seconded from forest duty to curate and catalogue this collection. He went on to collate the new distributional information with the results of taxonomic and literature research, to produce a 300-page Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Borneo (1957).

My duties at the museum included shepherding this highly technical work through the hands of the Sarawak Government Printer, whose typesetters were severely challenged. There were seven sets of proofs before the text could be passed. This checklist, however, was vitally important as the foundation for Smythies's fully illustrated and beautifully produced Birds of Borneo, published in 1960 by Oliver & Boyd.

Tom Harrisson, himself a keen and perceptive ornithologist, was an enthusiastic but erratic collaborator. Smythies succeeded in extracting information from him

by the simple expedient of passing over to him the first draft of this book; he found so much that was either outrageous, or irritating, or plain inadequate, that he was goaded into a frenzy of constructive comment.

As well as a systematic section of 403 pages, the first edition contained lively introductory chapters by Smythies himself, on the general ornithology and a physical description of Borneo, by Harrisson on "Birds and Men in Borneo", by myself on cave swiftlets (with an appendix by Smythies) and by Derek Freeman on "Iban Augury", along with a rich collection of photographs illustrating the countryside of Borneo and its birds, and the 29 colour plates which, once again, were prepared by A.M. Hughes, by now retired from the Navy. Smythies himself drew the topographical map of Borneo.

The book has had a major influence on the development of ornithology in Borneo and the region, and it continues to be in demand. In 1968, Smythies edited a second, updated edition, again published by Oliver & Boyd. This in turn sold out. In 1981, the Sabah Society and Malaysian Nature Society jointly funded a third edition, again updated, and shortened by omission of the introductory chapters and photographic plates in order to be sold at a price affordable to "those for whom the book was originally intended: residents of the Bornean territories who seek to identify and know the wild birds among which they live". A new, completely revised, fourth edition to be edited by Geoffrey Davison was proposed in 1996. Smythies contributed additional notes and went through most of the text line by line.

After a period of secondment to Brunei in the 1950s, Smythies returned to Sarawak as Conservator of Forests. In his last year of office, he brought together his accumulated professional knowledge of local forestry in a short guide, Sarawak Forest Trees, published locally by the Borneo Literature Bureau (1965). This was designed as a companion to Peter Ashton's 1964 Manual of the Dipterocarp Trees of Brunei State. Smythies's booklet drew heavily on his predecessor F. G. Browne's Forest Trees of Sarawak and Brunei, and was aimed to help forest staff and the commercial timber sector in the daunting task of identifying non-dipterocarp timber-sized trees. (Dipterocarps are the giant, principal timber trees of the rainforests of Malaya and Indonesia, some 250 species; there are 2,250 non-dipterocarp varieties in Borneo alone.) Not until the mid-1970s did loggers begin to make serious inroads on the interior forests of Sarawak.

Smythies was famously taciturn, but his lack of conversation and long silences were not misanthropic. Although terse in speech, he was kindly, knowledgeable in all areas of his interests, and an assiduous and punctilious letter-writer. He and I first met in the summer of 1956, in London, when he was on leave studying bird skins at the Natural History Museum, and I was about to embark on the month-long sea voyage to take up the unofficial post of Technical Assistant at the Sarawak Museum. I sought advice. After a pause for thought, he said, merely: "Take an umbrella." I bought a standard black brolly at London Lost Property, and took it. In Sarawak, in those days, much interior travel involved long, slow river trips in open boats. In the alternating hot sun and heavy rain, an umbrella did have its uses; but it wasn't my style and mine was soon lost. Bill routinely carried his when travelling.

In town - Kuching, the capital of Sarawak - his hospitality was austere, but alleviated by the geniality of the Iban tree climbers who, between stints in the field, stayed in his apartment and provided informal domestic service.

Bill married Jill Rogers in 1964 and, shortly afterwards, they left Sarawak. They settled at Estepona, near Malaga, in Spain. Smythies wrote that it was a relief "not to have to look at a bird again", and to be free to follow his true love, botany. The couple travelled widely in the region, botanising. Specimens were collected and deposited with herbaria for critical identification, photographs taken, and Jill drew double-page spreads of typical plants of key Iberian habitats for a joint field guide written with Oleg Polunin, Flowers of South-West Europe: a field guide (1973). It was followed, in 1984-85, by Smythies's checklist of vascular plants, The Flora of Spain and the Balearic Islands.

Sponsored by Polunin, Smythies became a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1969, raised to Hon Fellow in 1985. Following an accident to his wife's right hand, which cut short her career as a botanical artist, he endowed an award through the Linnean Society, established in 1988 and now consisting of a silver medal and pounds 1,000, given annually, "for published drawings or paintings, in aid of plant identification, with the emphasis on botanical accuracy".

Subsequently, during Jill's long incapacitating illness and after her death in 1994, he took a close personal interest in the award and its winners, whom he liked to meet. In his last letter to me, a few months ago, he said that he was mustering his strength to get to the Linnean for the Annual Meeting and the award, but that he otherwise went out very little.

Gathorne Cranbrook

Bertram Evelyn Smythies, forester and ornithologist: born Naini Tal, India 11 July 1912; married 1964 Jill Rogers (died 1994); died Merstham, Kent 27 June 1999.

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