Sunday, 14 February 2016

Peter Scott

Peter Scott, Painter and Naturalist. Elspeth Huxley. Ulverscroft Large Print Publishers Leicester. 1996 (first published in 1993). 

This blog was written on February 6th 2012

I bought this book for one Euro at the RDS sale of books in December 2011. Peter Scott was born in 1909, the only son and only child of the explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic and Kathleen (Née Bruce). His father died in the Antarctic in March 1912 and is stated to have said before leaving for the South Pole that he hoped his son would become "a strenuous man", as indeed he did. In a short summary at the beginning of the book it described Peter as

A championship skater, dinghy rider and glider pilot as well as an accomplished painter. Scott’s abiding passion was for wildlife. He travelled the world, hunting and painting wild birds, and then gave up shooting to found the Wildlife Trust and later co-found the World Wildlife Fund. His campaigns and television programmes awakened the world to the damage being inflicted on the natural environment.

Kathleen's statue of her husband, Robert Scott
His mother simply doted on him and through her elitist contacts played a large part in his success, particularly as a painter. After her husband’s death, Kathleen came to reflect in her late husband’s glory as did her son, which allowed her to become an intimate friend and a close acquaintance to the elite of Britain and of Royalty. She was a competent and successful sculptor. She subsequently married the Tory politician Edward Hilton Young, later to become Lord Kennet of the Dene. Her son too shared her prominence and in his later years he was not slow to take advantage of his influence to establish his reputation as a painter of birds, as a naturalist and as a sponsor of the World Wildlife Fund. The author’s description of mother and son is liberally provided with the names of the high and the mighty, perhaps with a tendency to name dropping.

However, the subject of the biography deserved to be remembered for his extraordinary career as a naturalist and his very special interest and research into the natural history and natural habits of geese worldwide. He had spent three or four years at Cambridge where his academic progress left little to be proud of (he emerged, after an extra year, with an indifferent pass degree) but it was there that he acquired his great passion for shooting and learning all there was to know about geese. He spent little time in the classroom in the University but almost all his time in the Norfolk Fens with a few other enthusiasts and naturalists.

Early in 1940 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and remained in the naval service until the end of the War by which time he was commanding a frigate and had received several mentions in dispatches with an MBE and a few bars. Later in 1943 he was awarded a DSC for his courage. He surely was lucky to have survived some very dangerous sallies into the French coast long before the invasion of the allied troops in 1944.

For those who are interested in wildlife and particularly in birds, the book is worth reading if only to learn some aspects of the social and environmental life of Britain before and after the World War. The subject of the book certainly emerged as the strenuous character which was hoped for by his late lamented father. Peter Scott must have been endowed by an enormous energy and by exceptional ambition and confidence to have such eclectic achievements as a writer, painter, propagandist, soldier and, above all, as a naturalist. The author quotes a friend who said that Scott attracted a great sense of deference amongst his acquaintances and yet he was struck by his character, so natural, so reasonable, so kind and so unaffected. His marriage in 1942 was to end in divorce much to his distress. His mother’s death from leukaemia at the age of 68 was also a blow. He was to travel widely in search of naturalist interests and to have chronic financial troubles not improved by his commitment to the cash-starved brainchild, the Severn Wildlife Trust. The Trust aimed at scientific research, public education and species preservation. It was his financial problems with his various interests that induced him to start writing and broadcasting with the BBC.

I have to say, however, that I found the book far too long and somewhat tedious and by the second half of the book I found myself skimming rather than reading the text. Despite this reservation, I must agree that Peter Scott was a remarkable man well up to the reputation of his famous father, Scott of the Antarctica. I will finish by quoting a letter in chapter 13 of the book, a plea written in 1855 to the then President of the United States from Chief Seattle, a Dkhw'Duw'Absh chief -

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it.

Peter Scott married again, had three children and had grandchildren before he died in 1986 just short of his 80th birthday. It would be impossible in a short review to give justice to the immense amount Scott contributed in his talents, his worldwide contribution to wildlife, his travels and his contribution to international understanding of our dependence on Nature and of every other species sharing the earth with us.

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