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RICHARD KEARTON A pioneer of nature photography

2018 HNHC President’s Lecture by Andy Sandford


2 RICHARD KEARTON A pioneer of nature photography 2018 HNHC President’s Lecture by Andy Sandford The idea for this talk came from researches in the Club’s correspondence archives and concerns Richard Kearton, one of our visiting lecturers from the turn of the 20th Century.

Kearton spoke at the Club three times between 1899 and the 1920s and was obviously quite a draw. Letters in the Club’s archives poke about hiring a larger hall to get more people in and procuring the services of a noted local magic lantern operator who worked at The Crystal Palace. From Swaledale to Ludgate Hill


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Richard Kearton was born and grew up in the village of Thwaite in Swaledale in the North Riding of Yorkshire, where his family were sheep farmers. As a boy, Richard had a great passion for nature, spending his days roaming the dales and learning the habits of the birds and animals. He also became a dab hand at tickling trout.

He said in his autobiography, A Naturalist’s Pilgrimage, “Many people laugh at the mere mention of tickling trout. They regard it as a joke, but it is no joke for the fish, however, as it generally spells the shortest and swiftest route from sunny brook to the frying pan.�


4 Even in later life he would often go out and catch himself a trout for breakfast when he become weary of what he called the “inevitable repetition of the unimaginative English Breakfast table, bacon and eggs.” When he left school, he became a farmhand and shepherd – which allowed him to keep on learning his field craft. One of his tricks was to imitate the call of grouse to attract them – a technique used by gamekeepers and poachers alike. This unlikely ability was to change his life completely. In 1882 he met Sidney Galpin, son of Thomas Dixon Galpin, one of the founders of the Cassell publishing house. Sidney Galpin was visiting Swaledale as a shooting guest of a Mr George Brook who was renting Muker Moor. Kearton says: “I went out with him one off-day and, arriving at a place called Bull Bog, which is close to the Buttertubs Pass, asked if he would like me to try my hand at calling up an old cock grouse for him. “We retired to a deep gully in the peat moss, and in a few moments I brought along an old Moorcock, which was promptly bagged by as pretty a cross shot as I ever saw fired in all my life.” Galpin obviously saw some talent in young Richard a job with Cassells at its offices on Ludgate hill in the City of London. Richard was put in lodgings in Clerkenwell, in a ‘dark and dingy street not far from St John’s Gate. It was the very antitheses what he called his “light and breezy home among the Yorkshire moors”.


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Clerkenwell 1890 It was a rough area and he was lonely and miserable and not used to the drunken and sordid habits of his new neighbours. Luckily after a few months of what he called ‘heart breaking discomfort’ a friend found him lodgings in Camberwell and, as he wrote ‘the sun began to shine again’. He started to develop his career in the publicity department at Cassels by taking a course in shorthand at the Birkbeck institute. Within six months he was able to write shorthand fast enough to take a position as correspondence clerk in the publicity department. There were no typewriters then, so he had to perfect his longhand by copying from Cassell’s own publication ‘The Popular Educator’ and he improved his vocabulary by reading the leading article of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ every day – making a list of the words he didn’t understand and looking them up in the dictionary.


6 The position of correspondence clerk, taking dictation from the managers of the business, gave him a good insight into publishing and an eye for what might sell. Before long he was sub-manager of the publicity department and his manager encouraged him to start writing. He thought that some of Kearton’s experiences as a country man might be of interest to the readers of Live Stock Journal – a weekly magazine for farmers that Cassells published.

The editor not only accepted and printed his contribution, but promptly asked for more.


7 “That was my modest beginning as a writer,” said Kearton, and I have been doing literary work of one kind or another ever since.” In the early 1880s Cassells asked him to write the nest and egg part of Swaysland’s Familiar Wild Birds, with illustrations by Archibald Thorburn. This appeared in monthly parts but was never completed. He asked if he could finish his part and have it published as a small separate volume under the title of ‘Eggs and Egg Collecting’ He was allowed to do this and was paid three guineas – the book later went on to be reprinted in 19 editions.

Page from ‘Eggs and Egg Collecting’ At some point before then he had also become a fellow of the Zoological Society. Pioneering nature photography After his father died in 1887 Cherry joined his brother in London working at Cassells.


8 Photography was fashionable as a hobby and Cherry got hold of a cheap second-hand camera. He doesn’t seem to have been a natural. Richard says he ‘began to perpetrate all sorts of weird atrocities in portraiture and landscape photography’. Or maybe it was just sibling rivalry. In 1892, while visiting some friends in Enfield, Richard found a song thrush nest and challenged Cherry to see what he could make of it with his camera. The result was remarkably good, so good that Richard decided he would write a book on English Birds and illustrate it with Cherry’s pictures. That was the beginning of the Kearton Brothers as natural history photographers. Richard says: “We laboured, spring by spring, without experience or suggestion of any kind, on the pictorial side of our work. We climbed trees, scaled beetling cliffs, toiled up mountain sides and visited lonely uninhabited islands in search of first-hand knowledge and accurate sun-pictures. The original edition of ‘British Birds’ Nests – how, where, and when to find and identify them’ was published in the Autumn of 1895.


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From British Birds’ Nests


10 Following the success of British Birds’ Nests several reviewers suggested that Richard wrote a book on their exploits and travels while taking the photographs for the book. This resulted in the publication of ‘With Nature and a Camera’

This was published in 1897, the same year that Richard married and moved to Caterham Valley.


11 With no text books to refer to on ‘how to do it’ they invented many of the photographic techniques that are still used today. These included sophisticated hides – for example,

Hides disguised as artificial trees and rubbish heaps


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Hides disguised as a dummy sheep and a dummy ox Once Cherry was hidden in the hide, Richard would slowly walk away, convincing the birds that the danger has passed. It didn’t always go according to plan though.

They also made use of remote controls, miniature cameras, telephoto lenses and magnesium flashlights for night-time photography.


13 At other times they showed themselves to be great improvisers, abseiling down cliffs, to get to the nest they were after standing on each other’s shoulders, wading into streams, and fixing ladders up trees to get the perfect shot.

The brothers went to great lengths to get the perfect shot Richard said: “The great points about successful natural history photography are: •

The possession of suitable apparatus to work with


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An aptitude for taking care in stalking timid creatures and

Plenty of patience to wait for and get what is wanted in spite of obstacles.

The photo shows a Dallmeyer half plate camera with a pneumatically worked silent shutter between the lens and the plate in addition to the focal plane shutter – also worked by compressed air - at the back.


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The adjustable miniature camera on top has the same focus as the main camera and was said to be ‘extremely useful when making pictures of flying birds or restless animals. The rubber tube to remotely activate the shutter is about 100 feet long and joined in five or six places so that the length can be adjusted. The climbing ropes are each two hundred feet long and an inch and a half and two inches respectively in circumference. The thicker rope is the descending rope and has three loops at the end which the climber puts round his hips and descends the cliff sitting in them. The revolver was to frighten off the birds on a cliff face so that they could see where the bird they were after was nesting. The climbing irons are for ascending tall trees. And finally says Richard – “A good pair of field glasses are indispensable, and more than double the pleasure and profit of a ramble along the countryside. A Redhill kingfisher When he moved to Caterham, Kearton already had friends in the area – in Redhill in fact, possibly even Club members. He wrote how - “last winter (1896) when all the streams in Surrey were swollen and muddy, a Kingfisher found its way into the garden of a friend of ours living in the neighbourhood of Redhill and containing a pond in which a number of gold fish were kept. Hearing of this, his brother was keen to come and photograph it. A friend cut a hole in a wooden box which he placed on a gravel path some way from the bird’s favourite perch and moved it a little closer every day. He then set up an old door so that the Kingfisher wouldn’t be able to see anyone coming out of the house and covered the gravel path with old sacks so that the bird would not be able to hear approaching footsteps. Richard writes: “My brother went down, and, placing his camera in the box, focussed on the bird’s favourite twig through the hole our friend had cut, brought his pneumatic


16 tubing behind the door, and retired to wait in our friend’s sitting-room, which commanded a good view of the pond. As the bird only came three or four times a day, and did not stay long on any occasion, no opportunities were to be lost, and while photographic light lasted he kept constant watch, even having some of his meals brought to him, for fear of missing a chance.�

The camera setup After six days of waiting he finally got the shot.

The Redhill Kingfisher


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The Holmesdale lectures In 1898, Richard had a bad bout of influenza and had to give up his job at Cassell’s – where he had risen to become head of publicity. He then drew on his experiences of nature and his brother’s photographs to build up a new career as a full-time lecturer. A prospectus gives details of ‘Three popular lectures he can offer through The Lecture Agency.

Kearton’s lecture prospectus


18 One of his early lectures was at the Holmesdale Natural History Club in 1899 on ‘Wildlife at Home: How to study and photograph it’. This was obviously a great success. The club’s proceedings show that: ‘In February, Mr Richard Kearton, FZS, gave his lantern-lecture at the Public Hall, Reigate, on Wildlife at Home. The admirable photographs were greatly admired by an audience of about 150 people.’ At the other evening meetings that year the attendance averaged 24.

No doubt thrilled with the success of the 1899 lecture, the Club invited Richard Kearton back in 1901. He replied: “Many thanks for your letter…. I shall be pleased to deliver my new lecture, Pictures from Nature, for your society on the same terms as before– viz five guineas.You can have any date in January except the 28th as a hitch in a projected Africa trip has left that month very free.


19 In the ordinary course of things I am saving my new lecture for the season of 1901-2 but if you try Redhill where I am somewhat known I have no objection to firing off our new cartridges – a stuffed bullock from which we have secured some nice pictures…. This was the famous stuffed bullock we saw earlier.

The Club obviously wrote back to confirm, and by this time he was off on the lecture circuit – in his reply he says. “Many thanks for your letter of 23rd inst. It has been following me round the country on account of the fact that I am knocking about lecturing in search of fresh materials.


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I have booked Jan 16 for your and with a good lantern and big audience feel sure we shall have a good time.”

Expecting a big turn-out, the club hired a bigger venue than normal – Redhill Market Hall – at a cost of 50 shillings.


21 The choice of ‘Lanternist’ was very important said Kearton: ‘a humble lanternist is capable of making or marring a lecturer’s career on the platform. Where really good pictures are to be shown his role is quite as important as the lecturer himself.’ He quotes a lecturer as offering a prayer that his slides might appear the right way up on the screen and in the right order – other perils included dirty fingerprints on the slides, boxes of slides being dropped and loud bangs if the oxy-acetylene mixture that provided the light wasn’t handled properly. The lanternist hire by the Club was Mr Birks of Warren Road Reigate, who obviously agreed on the importance of his role – after negotiating a fee of 50/he noted that: “I have done a couple of engagements in the Large Hall, and seem to have a good following.’ He added that he thought it might drum up business if the Club put in its advertising bill. 'Lantern arrangements by William Birks, who will use his powerful oxyacetylene Lantern as was used by him at the Crystal Palace'

When the time came the lecture drew only 106 people and although a critical success was not a financial one.


22 The proceedings show that receipts for the event totalled £6 – 6 – 0, but the expenses relating to the lecture came to £15 – 14 – 0 . It was only a timely donation of £8 – 0 – 0 that covered the deficit.

The Club obviously decided that this was too much of a risky venture and does not appear to have invited him back again until the 1920s. By then Richard Kearton was more of a sure-fire draw, having lectured at the Albert Hall and to the children of the royal family at Sandringham. His letterhead quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as saying that ‘The lecture was delightful’. In fact, the two had become regular correspondents. When Kearton visited Washington he had lunch with Roosevelt and the two went out together on a bird hunt. He obviously still had a soft spot for the Club as he wrote: ‘Although I am rather fuller of platform engagements than I care to be I have special reasons for wishing to come your way and have my pictures properly shown.’ And in his letter it is clear that he and his brother have made it to the big time as he says: ‘It will be impossible to get hold of my Brother’s African pictures as they are now being let out on hire to Cinemas.” ‘Cherry Kearton Big Game Photographer’ is believed to be the first publication containing flash photography depicting a lion and a rhino.


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Based on his African travels Cherry Kearton also wrote a children’s book about his friends Toto, a chimpanzee, and Simba, a fox terrier He later became a regular radio broadcaster on BBC. Richard continued to lecture and write – also producing a number of children’s books and remained a keen naturalist – observing nightjars, cuckoos and woodlarks around his Caterham Valley home and taking a friend to Godstone


24 Hill to hear a nightingale. His daughter Grace also became a photographer, with both Richard and Grace taking part in the Royal Photographic Society Exhibition in 2015 and Grace provided the photos – for one of his books that was published in 1915.


25 Richard died in 1928 at the age of just 66. Two years earlier he wrote in the introduction to his autobiography – A Naturalists Pilgrimage – explaining his reason for writing it. “If a man should leave the outlining of his life to some misguided enthusiast, after he has struck camp and taken his departure for fresh pastures, it may be done with more picturesqueness than accuracy.” The author hopes he has managed to add the former without neglecting the latter.

Richard Kearton in 1925 with jackdaws on his head

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RICHARD KEARTON A pioneer of nature photography  

Holmesdale Natural History Club 2018 President's Lecture by Andy Sandford. The life of one of the great pioneers of nature photography, the...

RICHARD KEARTON A pioneer of nature photography  

Holmesdale Natural History Club 2018 President's Lecture by Andy Sandford. The life of one of the great pioneers of nature photography, the...