232: Fenwick Lansdowne, Lithograph, Owl,
#348 of 1500, 1967, image area 22" x 28"....Lansdowne was often described as the successor to John James Audubon, the 19th-century painter who was North America's best known wildlife artist. "[Lansdowne] is the premier illustrator of birds in the world today," said S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, where Lansdowne's work was shown in 1977. Born in Hong Kong in 1937, Lansdowne was left partially paralyzed after he had polio when he was 10 months old. He immigrated with his mother, Edith, to Victoria in 1940. Edith was an artist who mainly specialized in painting ceramic birds, yet Lansdowne received no formal art training, a fact he later regretted. He had been advised that attending art school would spoil his natural talent. "His mother gave him some supplies and he liked feeding birds outside his bedroom window," said Graeme Roberts, who knew "Fen" as a child. "That's how it all started." Lansdowne debuted his first solo show at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1956. Critics marvelled at the fidelity of colour and detail in the 19-year-old's work. "His potential was noticed almost immediately," said Robert Amos, a Victoria artist and the Times Colonist art writer. "His career took off." Lansdowne's works were displayed at Audubon House in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Royal Ontario Museum, the American Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the National Museum of Science in Ottawa and Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities. From 1975 to 1987, he had annual exhibits at the Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin, the Holy Grail of bird art. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria and in 1995 was awarded the Order of Canada. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wrote the foreword to Lansdowne's Birds of the West Coast: Volume Two. "Fenwick Lansdowne has the exceptional ability to capture such moment with a seemingly effortless assurance, but which can only come from intimate knowledge, immense care and remarkable talent." Despite the international renown, Lansdowne's studio was a small, sparsely furnished cottage in Oak Bay. There, he would use bird "skins," a few pencil sketches and memory to create his lifelike paintings. One of his most ambitious projects was a 10-year commission for a 32-print collection of China's endangered birds in 1984 that became a book, Rare Birds of China. "I always thought it fascinating that he painted this outstanding portfolio on endangered birds in China from his quiet studio on Victoria Avenue," Amos said. Victoria artists remember Lansdowne as a private, humble man who disliked special attention. In 2004, he agreed to be honorary chairman for the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration observation group near Nanaimo.