Back in the late 1970s, when BB had only recently been acquired by Macmillan Journals Ltd, its circulation was low and the new owners were seeking ways to achieve publicity and an increase in the circulation. The aim was essentially to convert a journal of scientific record with a loyal but small, niche readership into a popular magazine, while retaining its scientific value and integrity.

I was the new Managing Editor charged with achieving these aims and, together with Macmillan staff, we came up with a competition for the best Bird Photograph of the Year (BPY), with a high-profile sponsor and awards presented by a well-known personality at a London-based press reception. This – along with some changes in the journal’s content and clever promotion and advertising by Macmillan – resulted in the hoped-for meteoric rise in the number of readers.

It was with this background that I was socialising at the bar on the Saturday evening of the BTO annual conference at Swanwick in December 1977, when it suddenly struck me that BB ought to run a competition similar to BPY but for bird illustrations. I literally ran from the bar to the neighbouring room where Robert Gillmor always held court, surrounded by line-drawings, paintings and other art by mostly amateur bird-artists. My enthusiasm was matched by Robert’s and, on the spot, we mapped out plans for the project, including rules and potential judges. The competition appealed to us both, especially since we could foresee that – in a world pre-internet and pre-social media – the competition would help to promote the work of the artists and perhaps ease their progression from amateur to professional status. Robert was Secretary of the relatively newly formed Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) and it was obvious that there would be opportunities for BB and the SWLA to cooperate, to mutual advantage (and to the benefit of the participating artists). Later, the President of the SWLA, Keith Shackleton, was equally supportive.

The editorial board of BB and the directors of Macmillan gave the scheme their green light and Bird Illustrator of the Year (BIY) was launched in the October 1978 issue (Brit. Birds 71: 469). Over the years, the sponsors included the Natural History Book Service (NHBS), Kowa, Pica Press, T. & A. D. Poyser and Christopher Helm. The award presentations were made at the SWLA’s annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in central London and space was always also allocated for the artwork of many of the competition’s entrants.

The aim of the award was not only to display and promote the work of the best bird illustrators, but also to help the artists to create drawings that would be suitable for publication in the burgeoning bird-book and bird-magazine market, which was expanding greatly at the time. Artists had to submit not one drawing but four, of very specific sizes, in a style that would reproduce well when printed (which was, for many publications, limited to black and white at the time), and entries were judged in these sets of four. Texts accompanying the winning drawings drew attention to common faults, such as errors of scale. As well as the core award, two other categories were introduced later: the Richard Richardson Award, in memory of the Norfolk bird-artist, for entries by artists aged under 21; and the PJC Award, in memory of Pauline Cook, which was awarded to a single, exceptional illustration chosen by the judges.

Looking through the names of all the winners, runners-up and award winners between 1979 and 2002 (table 1), it is notable that several artists who were placed second or third, or won the ‘junior’ Richard Richardson Award, later went on to win the main title. For instance, Alan Harris was placed third in 1979 and 1980, second in 1981, and then first in 1982, while Andrew Stock and John Cox both won the Richard Richardson Award before going on to take the title of Bird Illustrator of the Year.

The artists listed in table 1 include most of those who illustrated the plethora of books published during the heyday of non-photographic field guides in the 1980s and 1990s. BIY did, indeed, not only encourage up-and-coming artists, but also helped to promote their work and provide a showcase for their talents. Alan Harris, who, after his win went on to be one of the judges for 15 of the competition’s 24 years and is now BB’s art consultant, summarised the competition: ‘BIY gave aspiring artists that important “leg-up” and introduction to the publishing business, affording them exposure… The list of BIY winners is a veritable who’s who of the “new” British bird artists... and few have emerged since the competition ceased’ (Brit. Birds 100: 275). He commented recently that ‘without any doubt, BIY was life changing for many of those who won.’ Alan himself is a prolific illustrator of many books – and headers for BB papers!

It is a delight to look back at the artists’ work published in BB and to admire the range of styles and the quality of their drawings. It may be invidious to show just a few, but I have selected three of my personal favourites to accompany this article. They show work by the first three winners of the title ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year.’

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Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus by Alan Harris, who won Bird Illustrator of the Year (BIY) in 1982 (Brit. Birds 74: 277).

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Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor by Crispin Fisher, winner in 1979 (Brit. Birds 72: 403).

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Green Heron Butorides virescens by Norman Arlott, BIY winner in 1980 & 1981 (Brit. Birds 74: 275).

An exhaustive list of the books illustrated by BIY winners and runners-up would fill more pages than there is room for here; but a flavour of the wonderful depth of talent and range of subjects can, however, be revealed even by glancing through this incomplete selection of some of the work by just 22 of the artists. Richard Allen in Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers; Norman Arlott in over 100 books, including Collins Birds of the World; Nik Borrow in Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa; John Cox in A Guide to the Pigeons and Doves of the World; John Davis in Downland Wildlife and Badgers. Antony S. (Tony) Disley in Birds of The Gambia and Senegal and Birds of the Atlantic Islands; Paschalis Dougalis in New Holland European Bird Guide; John Gale in many of the Helm field guides and the Scilly Pelagic seabird guides; Alan Harris in Swallows, in Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World, in Kingfishers, Bee-eaters and Rollers, in Sylvia Warblers, in Finches and Sparrows, and many more; Ren Hathway in Thrushes; Ian Lewington in Rare Birds of North America and Rare Birds of Britain and Europe; Stephen Message in Waders of Europe, Asia and North America; Chris Orgill inBirds of the Atlantic Islands; Bruce Pearson in Rare Mammals of the World; Dan Powell in Dragonflies of Great Britain; Rosemary Powell in British Butterflies; David Quinn in Guide to New World Warblers and Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers; Chris Rose in Robins and Chats, in Swallows and Martins of the World and inGrebes of the World; Laurel Tucker in The Handbook of Bird Identification and Macmillan Guide to Bird Identification; John Walters in The Wildlife of Dartmoor; Martin Woodcock in The Birds of Africa; and Tim Worfolk in Shrikes of the World.

In addition to those artists who went on to illustrate books, many others achieved eminence in other areas of wildlife art and a list of their national and international awards would be equally impressive. That BIY has generated such a prestigious and lasting legacy in the world of wildlife art is something to be proud of.

Alan Harris, Pete Jarman and Nigel Redman generously provided voluminous detail of artists’ achievements and relevant publications, together with helpful comments.

J. T. R. Sharrock, Fountains, Park Lane, Blunham, Bedford MK44 3NJ;

e-mail [email protected]

Issue 4
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