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From:
"Barry K. MacKay" <[log in to unmask]>
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Date:
Mon, 4 Aug 2008 14:08:18 -0400
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In 1957 there was a big fuss about the "discovery" of a remarkable young
artist (several years my senior...I was an eager young would-be bird artist
still struggling with colour pencils and crude renderings) who specialized
in birds.  James Fenwick Lansdowne was born in Hong Kong in 1937, and at age
19, he had this one-man show of his wondrous watercolour vignettes, all
showing birds, and some other wildlife, native to the B.C. area.  He had
moved, with his mom, to Victoria at a young age, and his mother, who was
trained as a Chinese watercolourist, and who painted porcelain, had taught
him.  He had suffered, we learned, from childhood polio, which had left him
partially crippled, and required him to learn to write and draw with his
left hand.
 
Some important people took note of him, and that included an entrepreneur
who became Lansdowne's agent, and began to promote him with great skill and
passion.  The other was someone who eventually became a friend of my own,
although also quite a few years my senior, the noted Canadian
naturalist/environmentalist/philosopher, John A. Livingston.  Livingston
wrote a series of books on the birds of Canada that featured Lansdowne's
paintings.  Livingston said, at the time the 19 year old had that first
exhibit, that the artist had achieved the most remarkable wedding of
scientific truth and artistic feeling that he had ever seen. His paintings
were also featured in MacLean's, Canada's national magazine.  I think I
still have a copy.
 
What made Lansdowne special was his control of tiny detail in conjunction
with his wonderful decorativeness, which showed a strong Oriental influence.
He used only the highest qualities of materials and the delicacy of his work
was really quite incredible, and he had many imitators.  Although as a kid
he sold his works for $1.50 each, by the time his work was on display in
Toronto in 1957, they were worth $40.00 each, impressive for a teenager at
that time.  They now fetch the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of
dollars, and just to buy his series of 25 prints of Rare Birds of China
costs $25,000.00.    
 
He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and the Order of Canada and
the Order of British Columbia, and his works are in the most prestigious of
collections and galleries, and have been displayed at the ROM, the AMNH,
Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities and for over a decade he had
exhibits at the Yawkey Woodson Art Museum.  Prince Phillip wrote of him,
that he "...has the exceptional ability to capture such moments with a
seeming assurance but which can only come from intimate knowledge, immense
care and talent."   
 
He was very much, I think, a "studio artist", who worked from specimens, and
created wondrous designs but always with an eye to feather-by-feather
accuracy.  Tiny buds, insects, flowers...all in the most intimate detail.  
 
We never met, although I knew his agent and my mother once talked to him on
the phone and we had many mutual acquaintances, and my own bird art is of a
quite different nature.  But I admire his talent, have lived through his
career and am shaken to learn this morning that, on July 27, he died
suddenly, survived by his wife, Helen, his son, Tristram, and his daughter,
Emma.  All who I know who met him attest to his being a true gentleman,
gracious and modest.  Certainly he enriched the world with fruits of his
great talent.
 
Barry
 

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