Donald's Biography

Donald Watson
28 June 1918 – 7 November 2005

Scottish ornithology loses an elder statesman and master craftsman

Donald Watson was born at Cranleigh in Surrey on 28 June 1918 of a Scots father and an English mother.  He first began to draw birds before he was five years old and copied illustrations by Archibald Thorburn, the great wildlife artist of late Victorian and Edwardian times.  Indeed in 1930, Thorburn, a near neighbour and by then in his late 60s, invited young Donald to tea and encouraged his early interest, leaving an impression on him that was to remain throughout his life.  However, painting was already in his blood, his father’s sister (Margaret Stephens) having won a scholarship from Aberdeen to attend the Slade School of Art in London, while on his mother’s side his uncle was H.John Pearson, an architect whose paintings were exhibited in the Royal Academy.  His older brother Eric too became a most accomplished artist.

Shortly after Donald’s father died in 1931, his mother took her three sons to live in Edinburgh, where he attended Edinburgh Academy from 1932 to 1937.  It was there that he came under the influence of George Waterston, a former pupil, founder of the Midlothian Ornithologists’ Club and giant of Scottish ornithology in the 20th century.  Waterston enrolled him in the Midlothian club, of which Donald was the longest surviving member, and which developed into the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in 1936, with both becoming founding members.  His bird art continued to develop during this period, as did his skill and experience as a birdwatcher.  He first visited the Isle of May in 1933, where he met the `good ladies’, Misses Baxter and Rintoul, who were just finishing their final visit to `the May.’  Fired on by the migration studies of these ladies, though employing somewhat less fatal methods of capture, Donald was to visit the island almost annually for the next fifty years.

In 1937, he won a scholarship to St John’s College in Oxford and graduated with an honours degree in Modern History in 1940.  His war service began in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but he soon transferred to the Royal Artillery as a second Lieutenant and subsequently made Captain.  Following various postings at home, he sailed in 1944 from the Clyde to India to join the 6th Medium Regiment in Bihar.  However, after a month in the relative peace of India, his regiment moved east along the coast to take part in the autumn offensive in Arakan, Burma.  There Donald was to experience that common sense of purpose and deep camaraderie that was to form such a characteristic bond between countrymen in the face of wartime adversity and horror.  Throughout his time in the army, where possible Donald continued to paint and Burma was no exception.  Artistically, he was always inspired as much by landscapes as birds, and he found the Burmese varieties of colours and tone, from bright light to deep shade, irresistible.  The birds were an exciting and rich mixture of resident birds new to him and familiar migrants from the Palearctic.  He enjoyed a lucky break when he found that the GOC, General Christison (a fellow Edinburgh Academical), was a keen and expert ornithologist, who ignored the restlessness of his staff officers to talk at length with Lieutenant Watson about birds.  In this way, Donald discovered that there was a network of keen naturalists throughout the British services in India and Burma, and so in his own way he was able to contribute to this pool of information.  This was something of a comfort as the fighting became fierce through the mangroves and jungle swamps of Arakan, culminating in the allied landings and capture of Rangoon, abandoned very hastily by the Japanese.

He returned home to Edinburgh in April 1946, where George Waterston soon introduced him to Rev.J.M. McWilliam and Arthur Duncan (later Sir Arthur and Chairman of the Nature Conservancy).  Both men were keen ornithologists and near neighbours at Tynron in Dumfriesshire, and moreover both were instantly taken by Donald’s paintings.  Arthur Duncan invited the young artist to stay with him at Tynron and undertake an ambitious series of paintings of birds in their habitats.  In this tranquil and supportive setting, Donald began honing his skill as a professional artist, trying various techniques and methods, and attempting to emulate his favourite bird artists such as Crawhall, Seaby, Ennion and Thorburn, but always with an eye on the French impressionists, especially Monet, and other landscape masters.  Although skilled in many methods, from oils to scraperboard, he settled largely on gouache and watercolour, perfecting a natural manner of painting out of doors in a courageous and open style of great vibrancy that characterised his work in the late 1940s and 50s.  Still partly undecided on whether to become primarily either a bird or landscape artist, he made up his mind on discovering the works of Swedish nature artist, Bruno Liljefors; he could be both!  Thereafter, Donald said that he was `always happiest in relating birds to their environment’, and he was a leader in the genre for several decades, inspiring and encouraging many of the present generation of wildlife artists. 

In the spring of 1949, the Edinburgh art dealer, Ronnie Wheatley, gave him a critically acclaimed one-man exhibition.  Others followed in London, Glasgow, Newcastle, Oxford, Dumfries and elsewhere.  He also exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, Water Colour Society, Glasgow Institute and Royal Institute, as well as being represented in international exhibitions such as Animals in Art (Toronto, 1975) and Nature in Art (Luxembourg, 1989).  In 1950 he married Joan Moore, whom he had first met as a child in Surrey, and in 1951 they moved to settle in the beautiful upland village of St John’s Town of Dalry in Galloway, where they were to raise their four children and live happily for the rest of their lives.

Donald’s ability to relate wildlife, especially birds, to their landscape was truly magical, with the natural movement and `choreography’ of birds in flight captured in his distinctive and evocative style that so impressed art lovers and experienced ornithologists alike.  This derived, of course, from his own knowledge of his subject, his eye for detail and his special art.  Although birds in their landscapes became his trademark, he continued to paint portraits, and in 1962 he began his long series of bird illustrations with the Oxford Book of British Birds (OUP), which involved him painting a total of 96 colour plates, one every week for two years.  These included all birds that had been authentically identified in the British Isles up until that time.  Somewhat to the alarm of the editor, he dared to paint much landscape into the plates, but the former needn’t have worried as the book immediately became a classic and has been reissued in various formats on numerous occasions since.  Indeed, Donald was to go on and illustrate over thirty other books, perhaps most notably those in the prestigious Poyser series, where he collaborated with his friends Desmond and Maimie Nethersole-Thompson on Greenshanks (1979) and with friend Derek Ratcliffe on The Peregrine Falcon (1980).  In 1964, he became a founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists, which holds annual exhibitions in London, and in 2002 they made him their first Honorary Member.  His involvement in ornithology continued unabated and he was President of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club from 1969-72, becoming Honorary President in 1986 to mark the Club’s 50th anniversary.  He was local bird recorder in Galloway for some 30 years.

In addition to his war service overseas, Donald painted in various parts of the world, including France, Africa, America, Spain and the Seychelles.  However, it was his evocative and atmospheric paintings of birds in Galloway that were to perhaps attract the greatest acclaim, together with his wonderful treatment of waders and wildfowl on wet sands in the Hebrides.  His skies were legendary.  Of his own art, Donald said `My eyes respond to colour, tone, light and modelling forms, whether of living creatures or land masses.  I enjoy painting skies, water, wet sand or mud and coping with the technical problems that lack of solidity presents.’  That great wildfowl expert, Hugh Boyd, rated him amongst the very finest painters of geese.  Other experienced field ornithologists marvelled at his ability to capture the essence of spring in a humble willow warbler perched on a budding sprig, the `choreography’ of a group of lekking blackcock on a moor, or a gathering of hen harriers at roost in the gloaming.  In 1972, Scottish Academic Press published Birds of Moor and Mountain, written and illustrated by Watson, and this book showcased his distinctive birds-in-landscape approach, hinted at in the earlier `Oxford volume’, to a very wide audience.  Most of the paintings in this book were in an attractive Galloway setting, often depicting relatively unspoilt countryside that had disappeared from so much of the rest of the country, together with its dependent wildlife.  Moreover, this book demonstrated Donald’s complementary talent as an evocative writer – he could paint wonderful pictures with words as well.  His talent for writing was evident as early as his sixteenth year, when he won the RSPB’s public schools essay competition with his `Wings and their uses.’  An avid reader, he loved lyrical poetry and prose, especially in the hands of expert naturalists such as John Clare and Frenchman, Jacques Delamain.  Donald wrote beautifully and compellingly married his artistic and literary talents together in The Hen Harrier (Poyser, 1977), and the autobiographical A Bird Artist in Scotland (Witherby, 1988) and One Pair of Eyes (Arlequin, 1994).  In this way, Donald was able to convey the beauty and mysterious enchantment of nature that, remarkably, stimulated so many people to write to him or visit his home to give thanks for so skilfully capturing and relating the essence of their own wonder.

Undoubtedly, the species that he was most associated with was his beloved hen harrier, one of the most beautiful and artistically pleasing of all our birds, yet the most persecuted because of its ability to take red grouse.  Widespread conifer afforestation in Galloway from the 1950s brought a reduction in game preservation and an early flush of vegetation that was to benefit many species, including hen harriers and golden eagles.  Donald meticulously studied and recorded the breeding, hunting and roosting habits of the former in a pioneering way, and his book on the hen harrier is a classic marriage of bird study and art that stimulated a generation of field ornithologists and bird artists.  He also recorded the subsequent maturation of these forests with the resulting loss of important wildlife, and collaborated with his great friend Derek Ratcliffe, former Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, who died in 2005, in pressing for the kind of improvements in forestry practice that we are now beginning to see.  In addition to his wonderful art and writings, surely one of his most enduring legacies is his kindness and attentiveness in stimulating and encouraging the interest of all who in some way shared his passion for birds and the countryside.  Donald Watson died at Dumfries on 7 November 2005, after a short illness.  He was buried at St John’s Town of Dalry, Galloway, on Monday 14 November 2005.  His wife Joan died on 10 September 2004.  They are survived by daughters Pam, Kate and Louise, whilst son Jeff, a former Director of Scottish Natural Heritage and world expert on the golden eagle, died in 2007.


Chris Rollie   23 April 2012