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Anne Williamson



RAR 1     
RAR, Cley, 1954  

Richard Allan Richardson, notable ornithologist and bird artist, signed his work, and so tends to be known as, ‘R.A.R.’. After the Second World War he lived and worked at Cley-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolk coast, setting up a Bird Observatory there. He was a great admirer of HW’s writing from an early age, and met HW during the latter’s years on the Norfolk Farm during the Second World War; he much later illustrated a series of articles that HW wrote for the Daily Express. But that brief statement only tells the barest outline of a considerable, and interesting, connection.


RAR was born in Blackheath, London (the same area that HW went to school and lived until he went down to Devon in 1921) on 4 May 1922. Little is known of his early years, other than that when he was about six years old the family moved to the south-west (where his brother John was born) and that young Richard was educated at a naval school in Bisley (where as a schoolboy HW had attended the annual schools’ rifle competition). He showed considerable interest in birds from an early age, together with an innate talent for drawing them. On leaving school aged sixteen he was employed in an office in the City, apparently living in a hostel and spending all his spare time observing and drawing birds in St James’s Park. He also became a member of the London Natural History Society. Overall, one gets an impression of a rather lonely lad, losing himself in his hobby.


RAR was entirely self-taught; that is, he had no formal training as an artist – relying on close observation and continual striving to capture the essence of the character of individual birds. In 1939 he began to keep a notebook diary of his observations and sketches, where in an early entry he stated that he admired the work of Charles Tunnicliffe, who had illustrated many of Henry Williamson’s books, and that he was HW’s ‘best artist’ ‒ thereby revealing the fact that he had been a great admirer of HW’s writing from an early age.


Interestingly, one of his notebook diary entries mentions his feelings of loneliness, continuing: ‘As I have said before, I think it is one of the reasons why I love Henry Williamson’s books so deeply’. Indeed, Moss Taylor states in his biography Guardian Spirit of the East Bank (Wren Publishing, 2002) that RAR was strongly influenced by both Edward Wilson (the artist who accompanied the Scott Antarctic Expedition, dying with the others of the team on their return journey from the Pole) and Henry Williamson, quoting from a later entry from RAR’s diary:


I want to help others to see the beauty in life . . . Edward Wilson and Henry Williamson are my patterns.


In late 1940 (the actual date is not known, but after the end of September) – having become eighteen years old that May – RAR enlisted (no doubt he was ‘called up’, as it was commonly known) into the Royal Norfolk Regiment. He was then variously stationed at Swanton Morley in Norfolk; Colchester; and in Lincolnshire, before ending up (again date unknown) in Aylsham, North Norfolk, where he was billeted at Gordon House with Clifford and Dorothy Pask. It is clear that the Pasks took the young lad under their wing, and Gordon House seems to have become ‘home’ to him, and where he set up an aviary of birds he had caught and tamed.


Drawn to the birds of the coastal marshes, RAR would no doubt have visited the famous bird nature reserve at Cley-next-the-Sea, set up by the Norfolk Naturalists Trust in 1926, although of course at that time most of the coast was out of bounds due to fear of enemy invasion, and large areas were mined and covered with barbed wire. He also would have known from articles in the Eastern Daily Press and elsewhere, and through the publication of HW’s book The Story of a Norfolk Farm in 1941, that HW was living and farming at Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey, close to Cley. He met up with HW in the summer of 1943: his extraordinarily atmospheric painting of the farm is dated 19 June 1943. RAR refers to this meeting in a subsequent letter, from which one can deduce that he spent several days with the family. He certainly knew the names of all the children with some small details about them – for instance, the fact that HW’s son John was at Paston, the very well-known Norfolk school, and as we find later, the date of the birthday of the youngest, Richard. Unfortunately, no factual information about RAR exists in HW’s archive.


The superbly evocative painting would appear to have been done on the back of one of HW’s own postcards, as one can just see a faint outline of his owl logo in the top right-hand corner. This means it is actually very small, yet the detail is clear:



RAR 2 norfolk farm



The painting, pasted into one of RAR’s notebooks, is lodged in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, together with all of RAR’s notebooks, diaries and work.


Just over two months later, in early September 1943, RAR sailed for India with the Second Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment. That he had established a firm friendship with HW is shown by an airmail letter card he wrote soon after his arrival at Deolali. (An airmail letter card was a small thin pale blue paper which folded into four (5 x 4 inches) with a sticky flap to seal it, printed so the recipient’s address could be clearly written – together with regulatory details of the sender. This allowed three pages on which to write.)




Dear Mr. Williamson,


You will see by my address that I’ve travelled a few thousand miles since we last met.


I believe it benefits me to leave home for a while, as one then realises the full meaning of the word.


I’ve been in India for three weeks now, & the novelty of being in a foreign country is beginning to wear off. The kites and vultures, the house crows, & the mynahs are becoming part of everyday life & lately I’ve found myself watching the sparrows. The homely chirrup bringing memories of Norfolk stockyards in December with flocks of finches & buntings rustling among the straw.


Before leaving England I tried hard to get a copy of Tarka to take with me. I failed: but during the first evening’s walk around the little native bazaar I unearthed a battered old Penguin edition & am finding great comfort in its pages. No doubt plenty of people have thanked you for giving us Tarka & I hope you won’t be bored by the accompanying expression of gratitude.


We had an uneventful voyage during which I spent an interesting time watching for the migrants which boarded the ship. The list included bee-eater, hoopoe, turtle-dove, yellow wagtail, swallow. Whitethroat & wheatear. Also two kingfishers!!!


This is the monsoon season, or rather the end of it, & corresponds in temperature and rainfall to a very thundery English August, & the cricket-shrill nights are bright with sheet-lightning illuminating the surrounding hills.


The kites (common Pariah kites) are everywhere & compel attention by snatching scraps off our plates as we leave the meal table! The house-crows (like hoodies without grey backs) enter the tents & pilfer trifles from the beds. Vultures (looking enormous at close quarters) are always aloft in the blue, soaring in wide circles – watching.


A huge tree stands in the bazaar, & at sunset its branches are seething with mynahs, house-crows & cattle egrets, who use it as a roost.


The ear-splitting din reminds me of the autumn starling roosts in Trafalgar Square!


At dusk big fruit-bats or flying foxes (the size of rooks) set out on their nocturnal business among the banana trees.


There are some little squirrels about with brown & white lines down their backs. They’re rather pretty but have the horrid name of tree-rats.


Several birds on the British list are seen here too -- great-tit, white-wagtail, sandpiper, lesser white-throat & chiffchaff.


The native transport is bullock-waggons & donkeys, & cows, goats and countless dogs mingle with the half-naked children in the streets.


Well, I think that is all for now.


Give my kindest regards to Mrs. Williamson & your family. I’ll be very pleased to hear from you any time you care to write.


Yours very sincerely,


R. A. Richardson


That text covers the two inner pages, the third (actually the fourth or back) page contains the rather poignant ‘accompanying expression of gratitude’ referred to in the letter:



RAR 4 tribute HW



The piece of England referred to in that tribute was, of course, HW's Field at Ox’s Cross above Georgeham, in north Devon.


There are two separate small paintings (each about 4 inches square), one of a peregrine falcon, the other of a crow, which are dated October 1943, but there is no evidence of when they were actually sent. They are mounted on very thin card and placed in a quite substantial black folder (presumably made to contain photographs). It is very unlikely that RAR would have sent such an item through the post at that time, so perhaps they were enclosed with the above letter and then mounted by HW, or more likely handed over to his son Richard either then or later (the reason for the lad’s involvement will become evident).



RAR 5 folder paintings



RAR’s next airmail letter to HW has an interesting war-time disclaimer printed for the sender to sign:



RAR 6a air letter front


RAR 6b reverse disclaimer



The letter opens:



RAR 6d poem


and continues:


You may be sure I’m very pleased, as one can never tell what a chance like this may lead to.


Last week I had a parcel from home with “Salar the Salmon” in it. I enjoyed reading it very much, but not quite as much as Tarka.


“June morning”, “Mayfly”, & “Night Sun” were the best chapters in my opinion, but then again you had far less scope than in Tarka, didn’t you?


The nesting season is approaching here now. The kites are building untidy nests of sticks & rags in the higher forks of the big trees. House crows are feeding their mates & are indulging in little privacies when they are together in some secluded spot.


Mynahs are courting too & carrying dry grass to cervixes under the eaves. White wagtails have now got bold black cravats and are steadily moving north. (These are amongst the commonest birds here.)


I went to a quiet little spot just outside the little town yesterday & sat for some time by the upper reaches of a river where it meanders through the fields, & watched green sandpipers, red-wattled lapwings,, vultures, king crows, wagtails & bul-buls. It’s good to get away from everything like this for a short time. Although there are so many new birds out here, I’m slowly learning their names, & am keeping a big diary on their lives, illustrating it with sketches & water-colours from life. It should make interesting reading after I have completed it.


This is my first real effort at a diary since I lived in London in 1939‒40 when I kept a diary on all I saw in St. James & Hyde Parks. Also the outlying bird haunts like Staines & Tring Reservoirs & Richmond Park. I often used to hear curlews & sandpipers passing over on misty September nights. They were something to listen for each year.


The first time I can remember taking an interest in birds was when I was a child of 3. I looked out of the front room window of the house where I was born in Blackheath, & saw a song-thrush foraging on the lawn after a shower. I can see the silvery-pink legs among the fresh green grass-blades as clearly now as if it had only been yesterday that I knelt on the back of the sofa with my face against the glass.


Have you ever read about Edward Wilson who went with Scott to the S. Pole? I’ve just read his biography & extracts from his diary. He must have been a very great man.


Did you receive my letter written to you in the autumn? I had no reply & wondered if I had offended you in any way. If I did, please write & tell me so I can apologise. You probably do not realise it Mr Williamson, but since I read Tarka, you have meant a great deal to me, in fact you altered my life entirely. You look at Nature & think about it in exactly the same way as I do, but I haven’t the power of expressing myself & consequently derive infinite joy from your books. I must also ask you to forgive me for so suddenly butting in to your private life last summer. I was going overseas & it may have been my last chance of seeing you. Those days were the fulfilment of the hopes of five years. I hope you’ll understand.


Give my kindest regards to Mrs Williamson, Windles, Margaret, John, Robert & Richard.


Yours very sincerely


R.A. Richardson.


P.S. I sent an essay home entitled “Birdwatching from a Troopship” & a Major Russell, the English Master at Paston Grammar School, said he will try & print it in the “Pastorean”. You may see it in John’s copy.


I’d be very pleased to hear from you any time you’d care to write.


(HW’s second son, John, was at the time a pupil at Paston Grammar School in North Walsham, North Norfolk. ‘Home’ would have been to the Pasks, who evidently knew Major Russell.)


Two points arise from that letter: first, Moss Taylor relates the full detail of RAR’s attempts to get work accepted and published while stationed in India – together with his contacts and eventual success with various prestigious Indian Societies, museums and journals connected with birds. Second: I cannot help but feel HW would not have appreciated RAR’s (rather naïve) criticism of ‘having far less scope’ in a book that he had put an enormous effort into over a long period of time. Indeed, he wrote to RAR about the effort involved, as one can see from the latter’s reply in due course.


However, RAR had by then already made contact with HW’s son Richard, then 8½ years old and the youngest of HW’s children at that time. (He is ‘Jonny’ in the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novels.)



RAR 7 young richard
Young Richard busy doing the washing up at the farmhouse



RAR had noticed the boy’s keen interest in birds. (One might be inclined to think this contact was at HW’s suggestion, but as the above letter to HW implies, RAR had never received an answer to that first letter). So began a series of totally charming monthly airgraphs to young Richard, headed ‘Wild Birds of [the month]’.


(An ‘airgraph’ was a system invented by the Eastman Kodak company in the 1930s in conjunction with Imperial Airways (which eventually, via BOAC, became British Airways – ‘BA’) to reduce the considerable weight of letters being sent by air. Letters were written on a special form which was photographed on a roll of film. The negatives were then sent by aeroplane to England, where they were developed into photographs 11 x 14 cms (which were of varying quality, judging by those received by the Williamsons). This photograph was then folded just below the address, put into an envelope and then sent to the recipient. In the Second World War this system was adopted by the armed forces and was known as the Army Postal Service, or APS. It would seem to have been very labour intensive, but apparently saved enormous and precious weight and space on transport planes.)



RAR 8 airgraph
Airgraph envelope, with a window for the address



RAR took considerable trouble in preparing these airgraphs to a young boy he hardly knew. The first is dated 13.2.44 and is ‘Wild Birds of March’:



RAR 8a Wild Birds of Match



(This and the airgraph illustrations for remaining months of the year are reproduced on a separate page.)


Every month of the year is covered, but the time sequence of sending is slightly odd until one realises why. After the first airgram there is a gap, until the sending of ‘July Wild Birds’ in June 1944. The missing three months are then sent at their correct time the following year (showing that RAR kept a record of what he had done!). The reason for the gap is revealed in Moss Taylor’s book: RAR was seriously ill in hospital with a severely infected skin problem from flea bites that had turned septic.


Meanwhile RAR (still convalescent, as is revealed) wrote again to HW on 22 May 1944, which shows that he had now received a letter from HW. As one can see from the PS written at the top of the letter, the Pasks had sent him a copy of the Picture Post (6 November 1943) containing an article on shooting pheasants on the Norfolk Farm (see HWSJ 40, September 2004 for details).



RAR 9 Picture Post article



Dear Mr. Williamson,


Very many thanks indeed for your letter. I was pleased to read that I had said nothing to offend you, as I’d really begun to think I had! By now I hope you have quite recovered from your illness, & are getting into your stride again.


[Without a copy of HW’s letter it is not clear what this illness would have been. HW had been taken to Cromer hospital with appendicitis on 10 July 1943 soon after RAR’s visit to the farm in June – now a year previously, but he was of course constantly exhausted and a prey to colds and flu, which were exaggerated in his mind to a fearful imminence of death. Also this might have been an excuse for the lack of a previous reply.]


What were your new books? I saw one advertised “As the Sun Shines” & also another written in collaboration with Lilias Rider Haggard. I’ve recently read Richard Jefferies “Open Air”. Not one of his best I’m afraid. Thanks very much for your tips on sending my stuff to the E.D.P. [Eastern Daily Press]. To be perfectly honest, it had never occurred to me to try them. Would you think a weekly article written in diary form would be acceptable?


I have Frances Pitt’s weekly cutting sent out to me. She’s been writing in the London Evening News for years and they’re always charming – just the thing Londoners need, don’t you agree? Your essay about the little dandelion seed in Fleet Street was a sort of text for me when I lived in Shaftesbury Avenue in ’38 & ’39. St. James’ Park was my “happy hunting ground” in those days & I still have 3 of my London diaries at home. Yellow wagtails, cuckoos, sandpipers & swallows were my treasured links with the countryside; just chance travellers, but what happiness they brought.


Did you ever hear about the rare black redstarts nesting in Westminster in Spring of 1940? Westminster School, St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, & the National Gallery were the places I was able to study them.


I have read “SALAR” again since receiving your letter, & what you told me had made me infinitely more appreciative, & little pieces I had missed previously, have come to light.


I will certainly do my best to contact Lt. Col. Yeats-Brown if I go to Delhi. I often feel the need to chat to somebody about birds & things. Up to now no-one has turned up out here who has any real interest, consequently I confide my observations & discoveries to my diary.


We have a baby palm squirrel as a pet at this convalescent depot. It is a very common animal in India, & is longitudinally striped like an American chipmunk.


The little chap is only about 3 weeks old; very tiny & very tame. Yesterday afternoon it had a dreadful experience & a remarkable recovery. It was on one of its explorations – satisfying its infant curiosity, when it fell right into a cup of hot tea!!! We snatched it out by the tail at once, so it was only immersed for a half-second, but the pain it suffered was so intense that it writhed & staggered around until we thought it was done for. After being wrapped up in an old sock for three hours it emerged entirely unscathed (apart from rather sore hands) – a truly miraculous escape. Today it is “as fit as a fiddle” & scampering round as if nothing had happened. They are charming animals but have the fatal nick-name of “tree-rat”, consequently the more ignorant among us are constantly throwing stones at them.


It was very kind of you to offer to find me a publisher if I ever write a book.


I’m afraid it will probably be after the war before I start seriously to work on a book.


The main thing is that I’m always collecting material – both mentally, & in notebooks, & returning to England my enthusiasm will be so terrific that I’ll have to write something as a safety-valve.


I do sincerely hope young Richard will continue his studies of natural-history as he gets older. So many boys are wildly keen on eggs & butterflies & white mice, but like their other crazes, their interest is only too often a “flash-in-the-pan”.


At fifteen years of age their minds are devoted to aeroplanes & playing-cards & many of the happy child-hobbies are all but forgotten. It is my one cause for rejoicing that I’ve stuck to nature & have found refuge in her study at all times & in all places. Of course one has to earn one’s living but holidays couldn’t be better spent than in the pursuit & study of the creatures who share our planet with us. I couldn’t stop watching birds if I wanted to now. They’re part of me – as much a part of me as my right hand; that is why I try & share my joys with others & to show them what happiness can be derived from a little patience & sensible meditation.


Well, I’ve rambled for long enough, & I won’t waste any more of your time.


Kind regards to your family, & many thanks to yourself. Yours, R.A.R.



The issue of Picture Post to which RAR refers



HW was also the recipient of one of RAR’s airgraphs, dated 16 July 1944:



RAR 10 airgram to HW



And then only a few days later a further letter dated 21 July 1944.


Dear Mr. Williamson,


Thought you’d like this snap of one of my young mynahs.


I’ve just found the nest of a pair of ashy wren-warblers. These are tiny little birds (with long erected tails), slate blue above & creamy-buff beneath.


The nest resembles that of a tailor-bird & is bound to the frayed tip of a big lily leaf. About an eggcupful of fibres & cottony stuff with a wee entrance at the side comprises the nest, & in it is one microscopical nestling (there should be 3 or 4, but something must have befallen the others).


I made a water-colour sketch of the whole affair yesterday afternoon.


Hope Richard will find my monthly airgraphs useful. I remember wishing how much I would like to receive something like that when I was his age; but few people seemed to encourage my interests in those days.


Have you read “Rural Amateur” by Clifford Hornby? A remarkable book, mainly about falconry & farming. I’m now reading “The Old Stag” again. Didn’t know it was in Penguins!


By the way, the more I look at Tunnicliffe’s woodcuts, the more I appreciate them. I‘d like to see him at work.


Well, I must close now,


Wishing you & your family all the best,


I remain


Yours sincerely,


RARichardson [sic: signature runs as one word]


(HW had actually reviewed Clifford Hornby’s Rural Amateur  (Collins, 1943) in the EDP on 17 January 1944, though RAR was not to know this.)


Apart from the bird airgrams to young Richard as above, RAR also wrote the following letter to him, headed ‘India 3.10.44’.


Dear Richard,


Here am I, an almost complete stranger about to write something that I hope will be a help to you in the years that lie ahead.


I don’t doubt that this letter is absolutely unnecessary, & that your father has spoken identical words to you, so I must apologise to you if I appear impertinent.


But even if it only shows you that he does not stand alone in his beliefs & simple pleasures, then it will be worthwhile.


A life in tune with nature, with eyes and ears accepting flowers & bird-song into the daily round is a good life & the man who leads it cannot be unhappy for long.


Your father is a great man; one who will be remembered as long as English literature is read; & from him you have inherited perhaps the greatest of all God’s gifts – the ability to appreciate His handiwork.


So when things go wrong & you feel deserted, say to yourself “I refuse to be annoyed. God made me what I am – a naturalist, so I can’t be forgotten.”


You’ll soon know when you’re succeeding in your endeavours.


When the fluting of a redshank over the saltings sends a shiver up your back; & when you pause in your stride to look into the face of a wild pansy.


When you are unashamed to rescue an ant from a roadside puddle, or quote with honesty these two verses, then your goal is in sight.


Little folk who strive in vain

   Trapped upon the window-pane

Running in bewilderment

   Up & down, & round again


Insignificant & small

   Lovers of the sunshine all,

Ladybird & bumble-bee

   It’s a joy to set you free!


Well, I’m probably boring you stiff so if you’ll bear with me for another few seconds I’ll close with two more verses. They really refer to me but there’s no reason why they could not apply to you in later years.


Goodbye for now & “Good Hunting”




And on a separate sheet is the following:



RAR 11 RAR poem         



Nineteen years have passed away

   Since I, on that early day,

Watched with growing interest

   “A plitty flush, wiv speckled bleast”.


Eager face against the glass

   Watched him hopping on the grass,

Little did I realise there

   Just how much I was to care.




That charming and poignant little item, written in what is still a very young hand and personality, refers to RAR’s memory of himself aged three years, sitting on the sofa in the family home watching through the window a thrush searching for worms on the lawn. Born in 1922, nineteen years after that event indeed brings the date to 1944. RAR never lost his enthusiasm for birds, becoming a renowned expert on, and illustrator of, the species. Young Richard Williamson also never lost his interest in all nature, in adult life (after five years in the RAF) becoming a naturalist with a career as Warden of the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, and following in his father’s footsteps as a writer. He is also President of the Henry Williamson Society.


The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Moss Taylor notes that RAR felt he had contributed little – nothing – to actually help “win the war”. There is a comment that his greatest contribution, along with his bird interest and pets and his beloved dog Willow, was in keeping chickens (thus providing eggs for his compatriots). It is noticeable that he never rose above the rank of Private. It is obvious that his health was not of the greatest, and he had more than one spell in hospital – and of course, he had no control over what he actually did. The army ruled his movements and actions.


In June 1945 he was transferred, under protest (mainly due to regulations about Willow – again Moss Taylor relates the full background), to Colombo in Ceylon, where he stayed for only one month, but from where he wrote a long letter (4 quarto pages) to young Richard Williamson. It would seem that war-time restrictions on the size and weight of letters had already been lifted – or perhaps did not apply in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).


For Richard Williamson's 10th birthday in 1945 RAR sent a pen and ink sketch of a great tit feeding its young, with a message of greeting on the revserse. The mounted sketch is 8 x 5½ inches. A treasured possession of the lad, he pinned it up above his bed.



RAR 12a RAR bday RLCW 1945


RAR 12b reverse



The drawing was included in a letter to him, dated 11.7.45, which is headed:



RAR 12c ps top letter re drawing



Dear Richard


You’ve probably been wondering when you are going to receive another letter from me after my long silence. Anyway I hope you have found the airgrams helpful. I have sent one each month for a year so please tell me if any have gone astray or if they have reproduced badly & I will do another if you would care to return any you would like re-drawing.


Enclosed is a small birthday gift for you. I remember finding a great tit’s nest in precisely the same position as this one I’ve drawn; & we have one annually in one of our nest-boxes at Aylsham!


Under the rose-arch

    The great tits have found

One of our nest-boxes

    Eight feet from the ground;

Have packed the interior,

    Front wall to back,

With nine lusty infants

    In yellow and black.


How have you been faring this summer & what nests have you discovered? I have moved from India & am now near Colombo on the island of Ceylon. Our camp is in a grove of coconut palms with a plantation of rubber trees nearby. (see page 4)


On the lower ground are rice-fields with white egrets & big water-buffalos cooling themselves in the water.


This is the time of the monsoon when the heavy rains come & everywhere is green & fresh. Most of the birds are nesting now or have young ones out of the nest following them around for food. The most common bird around here is the House-crow.


He is smaller than the English carrion-crow and has a grey neck like a jackdaw. All of them are very bold especially now they have hungry youngsters to feed.


It’s an every-day sight to see three or four of them alight on the top of a moving bus & steal food from the vegetable baskets on top!


I brought my spaniel “Willow” with me from India but this camp is noted for its cobras so I have to keep an eye on her. We usually know when a snake is around, for all the little palm-squirrels run halfway down the trunks of the trees & cling to the bark upside down while they chirrup their abuse at the dangerous reptile!


At dusk the big fruit-bats, or flying- foxes, leave their roosting tree where they spend the day hanging asleep, & beat away to their feeding grounds among the banana trees. They are big animals & in the twilight look like kite-hawks without tails.


The cheery minas, who take the place of starling in India & Ceylon, have noisy broods under the roofs of the buildings, & fly to and fro’ with beaks full of insects.


Several miles away in the forest are leopards & herds of wild elephants but fortunately for us they don’t care for human company & keep well away.


I have about another year to stay out here & am looking forward to the time when I can visit you all again at Old Hall Farm. My friends from Aylsham will be sending my Bird Diary for 1944 to you in a short while. Although it isn’t complete I hope you’ll find it interesting. You will see sketches of most of the common Indian birds in it.


[Richard Williamson has no recollection of ever seeing this notebook. He was away from the farm at this time, staying in Yorkshire with his mother: HW may well have sent it straight back to keep it safe.]


So for now I must say goodbye. I shall be very glad to get another letter from you any time you would care to write.


Cheerio, & good hunting




[then there is a line drawn across the page]


[and the letter continues:]


Dear Mr. Williamson,


I feel I must tell you this. I have been asked by the author of an Indian Bird Book to re-illustrate its 4th edition. The present illustrations, he says, are far inferior to the kind needed, & asked me for specimens of my work. I sent some, & he replied immediately, saying they were the very thing he wanted. So I’m now busy with field studies in pencil & working up pen & ink drawings from them. Will bear in mind your warning about copyrights, etc: for which advice I must thank you again. I’ll let you know how I get on!


Yours very sincerely




P.S. The book is after the style of Coward’s famous work, & is a very creditable volume dealing with most Indian species.


(The book referred to is The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali, 4th edition, The Bombay Natural History Society 1946: ‘Coward’s famous work’ is The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, Thomas A. Coward, Warne, 3 vols, 1919‒26. RAR must have worked incredibly hard to complete this work in the time available.)


The fourth page of this letter is devoted to a sketch of how rubber is extracted as indicated by RAR in his note ‘see page 4’ in an early paragraph.



RAR 13 rubber tree sketch



Moss Taylor relates that RAR was sent back to India after only a month and was then transferred to Singapore in early September 1945. With the Second World War over, at the end of October HW sold the Norfolk Farm (Old Hall Farm) and he and the family moved to Botesdale, near Diss, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (prior to HW in due course returning alone to live in Devon). However, the following charming sketch sent as a Christmas greeting for 1945 reached the family in their new abode. The sketch is dated April 1945.



RAR 14 xmas sketch 1945


RAR 14a reverse message



It was forwarded to HW from Norfolk, and there is no further correspondence from RAR from this point. The Pasks, living at nearby Aylsham, would almost certainly have known that the Williamsons had moved, and so informed RAR – but it is very unlikely that they would have had the new address. RAR left Singapore to return to England in August 1946, arriving back in the country on 9 September, and, with 28 days leave, went to see the Pasks, where he was given a celebratory return, including his younger brother John, now a naval cadet. (John was sadly killed a few years later in a climbing accident on Ben Nevis, to RAR’s great distress.) He was officially demobilised in November 1946 and in due course took up abode at Cley-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolk coast, where he set up his famous Bird Observatory.


At this time HW was writing his allegorical story about life during the war on a farm on the north Norfolk coast telling of the life of an outcast artist/farmer and the fate of a rare Reeves pheasant: The Phasian Bird. Life then was busy, as HW had also taken over The Adelphi magazine. His diary entries at this time are written by Ann Thomas (his secretary/mistress). They were travelling frequently back and forth between Devon and Botesdale; HW was also visiting London on business. The Phasian Bird was finished in early February 1948. On 18 May HW wrote to Charles Tunnicliffe (or Ann did on his behalf) about producing an illustration for the jacket, but ‘Tunny’ declined due to pressure of work. On 26 May Ann noted that the first proofs of the book had arrived, also annotating several letters sent off, including one to R. A. Richardson, of which there is a file copy in the HW archive (the following small number of letters, written in 1948, are lodged with Special Collections, Exeter University, and are quoted with permission). That actual letter is dated 16 May (Whit Sunday), and written from Botesdale:


Dear Mr. Richardson,


Henry Williamson has been wanting to get in touch with you again for some time, but had no idea of your address until he heard it by chance on a radio programme record programme a few weeks ago.


If this reaches you tomorrow Whit Monday, and you could telephone him in the morning, he is staying near Potter Heigham [a village on the Norfolk Broads], and the telephone number of his friends there is Potter Heigham 225, I know he would like to have a word with you. It is possible that he called to see you on his way up there from Botesdale yesterday, Saturday, in which case there is no point in your ringing him – but I rather doubt whether he was able to make his way to Aylsham then, with petrol difficulties.


He returns to Botesdale on Monday evening, or Tuesday morning next (Tel. No. Botesdale 48) and is going down to Devon about Thursday.


Yours sincerely


-------------- Secretary to H.W.


There is no mention of HW’s own movements at this point in the diary, but note that RAR was at Aylsham, and so presumably with the Pasks. Although it is not mentioned in Ann’s letter, the idea was to ask RAR to illustrate The Phasian Bird. RAR's answer to this letter, dated 1 June, is however written from a Norwich address. In this he thanks HW for his card as well as the secretarial letter and apologises for not being able to meet him due to the fact that he was away in Skokholm (island and bird reserve off the Pembrokeshire coast) and has been travelling about since then.


Your new book sounds very interesting and I would be pleased to help by illustrating it. I’m afraid, however, what artistry I have in drawing, is confined to birds, and possibly a few simple landscapes, which will probably be of little use to you. But if you would really like some of my work, I’d be delighted to send you a few samples . . .


It is signed ‘RAR’. In a PS he asks HW to give his regards to Mrs Williamson and the family next time he sees them – ending: ‘I expect I should scarcely recognise young Richard & the others.’


On 4 June Ann noted in the diary receiving a letter from RAR: ‘saying he would like to try the illustration for Phasian’. HW replied to this letter on 6 June, wondering if they could meet in Norfolk at the end of the month and revealing that there is no hurry – there will be an ordinary edition first with an illustrated one to follow in due course. He points out cover illustrations have to compete with other books on sale and need to be bold but simple, and says he has an old pheasant book which has an illustration that could be a source for adaptation (this is W. B. Tegetmeier's Pheasants, 1888). HW gives a brief résumé of the plot of the book, then writes that he would like an answer as soon as possible about the jacket as the book is due to come out in October and the publishers are doing nothing about it. The illustration in the Tegetmeier book would give him (RAR) an idea of how this bird which ‘travels at double the speed of an ordinary pheasant in a few feet can reverse in the air and plunge like a comet to earth’. He then continues:


do not be scared of the task . . . I am sure you could do it. . . . I still have the beautiful coloured drawings of the peregrine and Indian raven you sent me some years ago. . . . a career which as I told you at the time when first I saw you, is destined to bring you to big things.


The letter ends without any signature.


A letter from RAR dated 27 June 1948 (with a Norwich address) answers this, apologising for the delay as he has been in Scotland, and that he cannot visit HW in Norfolk as he is now going down to Dorset ‘for an indefinite period’, but if HW would send the pheasant book to the Norwich address it could be forwarded to him.


There is no further mention of this proposal: with the date of publication (5 November 1948) fast approaching, it would seem that Faber had taken matters into their own hands and arranged for Muriel Eldridge (artist wife of the poet R. S. Thomas) to produce the necessary cover work: a superbly striking painting of a Reeves pheasant in flight. (Eldridge also most sensitively illustrated a new edition of The Star-born, published in the same year.) RAR gave no hint that he was anyway very involved at that time, at the request of its author R. S. Fitter, with the mammoth task of producing illustrations for the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds (1st edition, 1952). RAR’s travels were obviously in order to see and draw the great number of birds needed for the book.



RAR 15 Collins cover



(The Foreword for this book was written by Peter Scott, who proclaimed the illustrations superb and RAR ‘a new bird painter of great skill'.)


The next connection with RAR took place in September 1951, and again concerns young Richard, 16 years old on 1 August. By this time HW had remarried and had a new son. His first family had moved from Botesdale to Bungay on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Unfortunately, there are no background details to explain how the renewed contact came about – but it would appear that RAR offered ‘Birding Holidays’, and that Richard’s mother, HW’s first wife Loetitia (Gipsy), arranged for Richard to spend a week with RAR together with his faithful housekeeper Mrs Davison, at the house in Cley. The cost of this was £5 – quite a large amount at that time. Richard remembers that he and RAR walked every morning after breakfast down the seawall to the Cley Bird Observatory, or cycled further afield to the marshes alongside Cley Bank. RAR was famous for holding court on the sandbank, known as the ‘East Bank’, sitting with his famous black beret on his head, among a crowd of admiring birders, many of them youngsters, seeing every bird long before anyone else, and knowing every tiny piping whistle and which bird had uttered it. Richard knew some of the birds of the marshes and coast from his young days on the Norfolk Farm at Stiffkey – just along the coast from Cley – during the years of the Second World War. So common terns, gulls, oystercatchers and dunlin were very familiar, but many were new: small migrant passerines, uncommon waders, skuas, or sea duck and unusual gulls now ‘appeared as if conjured up by magic out of the sorcerer’s hand’.


The new handbook with RAR’s illustrations was not then out. Richard had (and still has!) from a young age a well-used copy of the Observer’s Book of Common Birds illustrated by Archibald Thorburn. In this RAR wrote notes describing the calls of various birds now heard for the first time, as in this example:



RAR 16 RAR note in Observer book



Next to the green sandpiper he wrote: ‘A shrill whistle, tioo-eet-weet-weet’; by the wood sandpiper, ‘a weak chip-yip-yip ‘; under whimbrel, ‘titty-tetty-tit’; grey plover ‘tee-oo-ee’; turnstone, kitter-kit’ and ‘tuket’. For other birds he wrote in the essential identification marks such as show on rump and wing bars. Richard says RAR identified many birds new to him at that time, such as bearded tit, knot, bar-tailed godwit, ruff, garganey, pied fly-catcher, blue throat, yellow wagtail, twite and merlin. It was a rapid way to learn and very enjoyable. For his part, RAR must have been pleased to find his young protégé still so keen and interested. The only drawback for young Richard was that during this birding holiday he was suffering from a very painful boil on his face – a common occurrence in those days when food was still very scarce and the need for vitamins not commonly recognised.


As already stated, RAR had been working on the new Collins bird book (certainly by then in proof stage) – and he now gave Richard Williamson a selection of pages (six in total) of the coloured originals of ‘wader’ pages (about A5 in size) – still treasured possessions seventy years later. Richard of course has a copy of that first edition – a little battered with use. Comparing these illustrations with those in the book shows considerable differences: they are simpler and less finished, and were no doubt first drafts that were later improved for publication:



RAR 17a RAR collins


RAR 17b collins 2


RAR 17c collins


RAR 17d collins 5


RAR 17e collins 5


RAR 17f collins 6



There is also a superb pencil drawing of a pied flycatcher given to Richard at the same time. RAR seems to have had a very generous personality:



RAR 18 pied flycatcher pencil



He wrote to Richard a few days after the holiday ended – referring to that wretched boil!



RAR 19 letter 1951



Richard met up with RAR again a couple of years later when he was stationed on the north Norfolk coast at RAF Trimingham. He had then a BSA motorcycle, and used to ride over to Cley to watch birds for the day. He says RAR was easy to find: a parked motorcycle and a group of people surrounding the ‘Master’ as they followed a rare bird around the marshes and headlands! It may come as a surprise to learn that RAR was a motorcycling enthusiast: starting with a BSA, and then having various models of, and ending up with a very prestigious (and expensive) Norton – another link with HW. Moss Taylor includes several photos of RAR in black leathers, his habitual wear, and various motorcycles.


A letter from RAR to HW (Exeter University Special Collection archive), from ‘Hilltop, Cley’, dated 13 April 1956 also recalls meeting with Richard:


Dear Henry Williamson,


You will probably be surprised to hear from me again after all this time but I often think of our meetings at Stiffkey in 1943, and your kind letters to me in India.


I saw Rikky the other day. As you know he is stationed with the RAF at Trimingham & last year he found a wryneck’s nest near West Raynham. I seem to remember you having one at Old Hall Farm early in the war & would be glad if you can remember any details, date, etc. I am on the recording committee of the Norfolk Bird Report and we are summarizing recent wryneck breeding records.


With all good wishes


Yours very sincerely


Richard Richardson.


Richard Williamson kept the following cuttings from the Eastern Daily Press from that time:



RAR 20 EDP 1957



RAR 20A EDP 1960


Richard’s last contact with his mentor occurred when he became assistant warden at Blakeney Point National Trust Reserve in 1963, where the work was mainly involved with protecting the tern colony breeding there. RAR would have seen that this was one youngster who had remained faithful to the world of nature and birding. The following year Richard was appointed warden of the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve near Chichester in Sussex, where he remained for the rest of his working life ‒ and indeed continued carrying out the weekly bird surveys and other research until his mid-eighties.






In 1968 HW arranged to do a series of monthly articles for the Daily Express. Many of these were illustrated by RAR. There is, very sadly, no background information in the archive about how this came about. HW had finished writing the last volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (The Gale of the World) in February that year with attendant emotion of relief, and on 11 May notes, ‘Posted finished TSS of Gale to Macdonald’. But he was working on various other projects, and driving about a great deal from place to place visiting friends etc. He also became involved with yet another hoped-for ‘Barleybright’, which relationship proved no more successful than the others, and was certainly, as always, a huge emotional drain.


There is neither correspondence nor diary note, so it would seem that it was on a business visit to London that HW contacted the Daily Express, and the following series of articles resulted. He had often written for the newspaper in the past (all the Daily and Sunday Express articles have been gathered together by John Gregory and published by the HW Society in several volumes). This particular series is contained (along with other material) in Days of Wonder (ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1987; e-book 2013). Richard thinks that J. C. Harrison was considered for the task of illustrator, but his elaborate oil paintings were not suitable for newspaper reproduction: simple pen and ink was what was required. RAR’s work fitted the bill exactly and so, very fittingly, the two men were united in print at last.


There is the barest of mentions in HW’s diary, an entry on 20 May noting ‘D. E. article’, written in green ink. That note obviously actually refers to the posting of the article to the newspaper. This first article of the series, ‘How the hawks lost the war game’, appeared on 1 June 1968, illustrated by a superb caricature drawing by Don Roberts, Art Editor of the newspaper. That weekend HW was at a conference of the Aylesford Review at Spode House, and the article is not mentioned in his diary.


On 29 June he noted: ‘D. Express article No 2 appeared – on the Kingley Vale.’ There is also an aide-memoire note opposite this stating: ‘Robin Essor. Features Ed. D. Express.’ This was the first with an illustration by RAR:



RAR 21 HW Daily Express 2961968



Here HW relates a visit made to the Kingley Vale NNR where Richard was warden. After relating what he saw there – a hobby catching butterflies – he ends:


Every day of my stay in Sussex I was 'up the Vale' where life flowed into a body which had for far too long been quiescent at a desk, writing.


As HW mentions Richard by name towards the end of the article, RAR, who would of course have read these pieces, would have once again caught up with his protégé. All three united on the same page – an appropriate (albeit small and hidden) tribute for posterity.


These articles appeared on the last Saturday of each month. It seems that HW posted off his copy the previous Monday. This would have given the paper only just enough time to get a copy to RAR so that he could produce an appropriate drawing. Quite a tight schedule! The time gap seems then to have been lengthened. There does not appear to have been any direct contact between HW and RAR, unless it was by telephone.


The article for 27 July was headed ‘What that lovely little bird told me’, about pigeons in London. I notice that HW mentions St James’s Park, perhaps deliberately, for it was RAR’s original source for bird watching: I am sure that point did not escape RAR’s notice!


Richard was helping HW with these articles – providing information and incidents that could be used. This resulted in the following little exchange concerning the article that appeared on November 30: ‘The noble hunter’s back in town’:



RAR 22 HW Daily Express 30111968



The original of this sketch was sent by the Daily Express to Richard via his father, who wrote a note on the back. Note that the prinited version is reversed from the original drawing:


RAR 22A RAR orig drawing


RAR 22B HW note on reverse


The note reads:


This is sent to you with Compliments of the Features Editor of D. Express. (I told him you could carry on the articles on your own – a master – if I conk out).


Love for Xmas to all, Henry.


D. Express office, Fleet St


The series continued until late 1970, but the last illustration by RAR appeared on May 30 to grace ‘The visitor who stalks by night!’ This is a short lyrical cameo about a nightjar seen, and heard, on a May evening among heather downs above the Atlantic. It ends:


I remember finding my first nightjar’s nest in June 1914, while on my first visit to Devon, when a return ticket from Waterloo to Barnstaple cost all of 9s. 6d. June 1914! On my return to London the first thing I saw was a poster, by a bookstall, of a weekly paper called John Bull, saying TO HELL WITH SERBIA!


A week or two later I was in khaki, and not long afterwards, with a Territorial battalion of the London Regiment in Flanders, and dreaming of English woods and fields, then gone, it seemed, for ever.


Fifty-six years after this event HW is still haunted by the onset of the First World War and what it meant to him.


Sadly, RAR’s life came to an end in October 1977, only two months after that of his own mentor, Henry Williamson. He was a prolific smoker, and, despite his life in the open air, succumbed to lung cancer which had then spread into his spine. He was only 55 years old.


There was a local clamour to mark his life with a memorial, and two rival appeals were launched by local factions of the birding world, with some unedifying squabbling. The Norfolk Ornithological Society seems to have been the official version.


Richard became involved, suggesting an exhibition of RAR’s work should be held, offering the items concerning HW and himself, with proceeds to go to the official fund. His letter was published on 16 January:



RAR 24d RLCW letter



Richard’s idea for an exhibition was taken up and organised locally. It took place at the Picturecraft Gallery in Holt from Easter Monday, 27 March 1978, for a week.


Moss Taylor records:


Never before had so many of Richard’s [RAR] original paintings and sketches been exhibited together. They included his original plates for The Pocket Guide to Nests and Eggs, many of the vignettes used in the Norfolk Bird Report, and a wide selection of water colours owned by Richard’s friends in Norfolk.


Richard’s diary for 31` March records the event:


Went to Holt to Picturecraft Gallery to see the R. A. Richardson exhibition put on there as a suggestion of my letter of January 16th, 60 framed paintings covered one wall, & some exquisite drawings of British Birds & their eggs which were reproduced in the Collins Guide, loaned by R. S. Fitter, who brought them in wrapped up in old newspapers.


My drawings, aerograms, letters & paintings were central, & the owner of the gallery said they caused a great deal of interest, particularly among the women. A thousand people came on the first day. I bought an RAR colour print of shore birds for £15, No 209 of 400 [limited edition] of snow bunting, shore lark, skylark, and great grey shrike (not necessarily in that order).


Various other events were organised and Moss Taylor records that by June 1978 £2,000 had been raised. A bird scrape and observation hide were established on Cley Marsh, but very unfortunately these were swept away in a flood in 1996. Some of the fund was also used for his headstone at St Margaret’s Church, Cley:



RAR 28 headstone

From Moss Taylor's Guardian Spirit of the East Bank

Photo: R. Jefferson






I am very grateful for permission from Moss Taylor to quote, and to use photographs and information, from his splendid biography of Richard Richardson: Guardian Spirit of the East Bank (Wren Publishing, 2002). All RAR archive material was deposited at the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology (Alexander Library) and is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, which has kindly given permission for use of material in its care. I am also grateful to the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust (FIBOT), with which RAR was long associated, and to which he gave the copyright to his work, for its generous permission to use any material necessary to this essay.







In March 2019 the Fair Isle Bird Observatory was completely destroyed in a fire, together with its entire archive. FIBOT subsequenty launched an appeal for donations to rebuild the Observatory, details of which are on its website.







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