Gordon Beningfield - His Life
Gordon Beningfield was born in London on 31st October 1936 but moved with his family to Hertfordshire in 1941, during the Second World War. He lived in rural Hertfordshire for the rest of his life and became a skilled and observant naturalist.
Gordon attended the village junior school in London Colney and went on to the local secondary modern. He married Betty and their first home was a rented cottage in Kinsbourne Green. From there they moved to Redbourn and bought their first house, 1 Dell Cottage, off Lybury Lane. A work colleague, who worked with Gordon at Faithcraft, and lived next door, had told Gordon about the property. Gordon and Betty lived there for 12 years, during which time their 2 daughters, Sally and Sarah, were born under the care of Nurse Trudgett, the local midwife. The girls both attended the annexe of the local infants school, which was then on the Common in the building currently used by the Youth Club. Gordon was most impressed when one of the teachers, Miss Humm, told him that she once used to teach the children Hedging and Ditching!
Gordon’s parents came to live in The Square and after his father died, his mother was a resident of Gertrude Peake Place. When Redbourn Village Historical Society was formed, Gordon kindly agreed to become its first Patron.
The Beningfield family moved to Water End in 1980, to a beautiful cottage standing in an acre of land on the edge of Ashridge Forest. The cottage was built around 1600 and with the help of friends, Gordon uncovered beamed ceilings and 2 inglenook fireplaces that were carefully restored. The lime wash was removed from the outside walls and Gordon and Betty planted simple cottage garden flowers, and about 30 trees. Everything else in the garden was wild, giving Gordon ample natural subject matter for his paintings on his doorstep. Gordon was a keen fisherman and together with friends, stocked the stream near to his home and managed it as a rural river with reed beds and thick undergrowth on the banks. One of Gordon’s fisherman friends was the late Eric Morecambe, and the pair enjoyed walking, sketching and fishing (and presumably joking!) together.
Gordon loved the sight of farm animals in their natural surroundings. He had a fascination with anything made by hand by craftsmen, such as gates, stiles and wagons and often visited the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex to research his books.
It is well known that Gordon especially loved Dorset where he found pockets of countryside that were relatively unchanged. Thanks to the big country estates, Gordon found that some of the essence of rural England still survived in Hertfordshire. But he was deeply concerned about the future of the countryside and actively involved in a wide range of conservation activities. Gordon succeeded Sir Peter Scott as President of Butterfly Conservation. He died, tragically in1998 whilst busy painting for a new book, “Beningfield’s Vanishing Songbirds”. Gordon selected this topic because of the destruction of the British countryside and the effect on the birds that depended upon it.
Robin Page completed his friend’s book with the help of Betty Beningfield and the result was a magnificent tribute to one of Britain’s most talented artists.
Gordon Beningfield - His Work
Gordon began his career, aged 15, as an ecclesiastical artist, working for Faithcraft in St. Albans. He learned to paint, decorate, sculpt, lay gold leaf and many other crafts related to furnishing and decoration of churches. By attending St. Albans College of Art on day release and evening classes, he pursued his interest in fine art. Towards the end of his 13 years with the company Gordon worked in their stained glass studios. A later commission included a memorial window for the Household Cavalry in the Guards Chapel at St. James’ in London. The design was inspired by a visit to the barracks and Armoury. Symbolic pieces of equipment formed the heart of the design.
In the 1960s, he built a reputation as a wildlife artist and in 1974, a television programme called “Look Stranger” brought his work to the attention of a larger audience. After that, regular appearances, on programmes like “In the Country” for the BBC, kept him in the public eye, and the quality of his work steadily enhanced his reputation.
Gordon’s work first appeared in book form in “Beningfield’s Butterflies”, followed by “Beningfield’s Countryside” and many more. His paintings were mainly watercolours but he sometimes used acrylic paint to highlight particular features.
Gordon mostly used a cream paper and applied watercolour washes, very wet, very free and loose. Gradually the images were worked up, wash by wash. As one dried, he applied more watercolour tone over the top of it. Finally he used gouache in the areas that needed more emphasis. His subjects were always set beautifully in their natural habitat.
In Spring 1981, the Post Office issued a series of four butterfly stamps from his paintings. Later there was a series of British stamps featuring insects and he also designed stamps for other countries, including Micronesia, always concentrating on natural history themes.
In addition to painting, Gordon was a glass engraver and a brilliant sculptor, working on subjects such as his favourite Longhorn cattle, in his later career. He was an authority on shepherding, collecting relevant memorabilia and wrote a book “The Downland Shepherd”.
The wildlife artist, David Shepherd, wrote:
“Gordon Beningfield was a modest man who shied away from publicity and the media. He just wanted to get on quietly with his painting, but there was nothing quiet about him when he came face to face with urgent conservation issues of the time. Above all he will be remembered for his love of nature. He was part of it and was surely one of “nature’s gentlemen”. He was fanatical in his dedication to do what he could to preserve this beautiful countryside of ours with it’s diversity of plants and birds, the beauty of which he portrayed with such a delicate touch in his lovely watercolours”.
Gordon Beningfield - What kind of person was he?
A tribute given by his close friend, Dennis Furnell, at the Gordon Beningfield Exhibition at Redbourn Museum on 30th September 2006.
“To me he was a friend and fellow environmentalist – and a man who was enormous fun to be with and the best field naturalist I ever met.
Gordon and I first met by chance, well over thirty years ago, when we were both exhibiting paintings at the World Wildlife Fund Exhibition in the Pavilion in Hemel Hempstead, although I was already aware of his growing reputation as an artist.
I wandered around the exhibition looking at the paintings and stopped at a set of superb watercolours of wildlife. They were in a class of their own and I saw that they were by Gordon Beningfield.
I looked around to see if I could see the artist, but there was only a fair-haired, smartly dressed young man, about my own age, who looked like a country vet or perhaps an estate manager.
I started to talk to him and said how much I admired the style and technique of the painting. Of course, it was Gordon – and we spent the greater part of that evening talking about wildlife painting and the painters and naturalists we jointly admired.
From that chance meeting a friendship developed with both Gordon and with Betty and that was to last more than thirty-five years.
Because of my work I had the good fortune to be able to spend a great deal of time with him, simply wandering through the countryside of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Sussex, Hampshire and particularly Dorset.
I was able to see at first hand Gordon’s ability to capture, at astonishing speed, the essence of a subject and landscape with pencil and paper, or with a few watercolour washes. It would be exactly as he saw it and later in the studio he would turn these few sketches into a fully worked up painting. His eye and memory for colour and form was remarkable.
His ability to put butterflies into a landscape that was of their scale was a joy to watch, and earned him a reputation as the foremost butterfly painter of the century.
There was a serious side to Gordon. He was passionate about preserving and protecting the best of the English countryside and its wildlife and he was also a formidable debater; something that earned him the admiration of not only those in the conservation movement, but also among the general public and even among those he railed against whose opinions were diametrically opposed to his.
But it would be wrong to imagine Gordon only as a serious person. He was enormous fun to be with. Often we could be located in the deepest Dorset countryside by following the sound of laughter.
Gordon was multi talented, but he was also an immensely hard worker who strove always to develop and improve what was amazing ability in various different mediums way beyond the scope of many artists of his generation.
As a sculptor he must rank among the finest. As a glass engraver he had few equals and you can see from his paintings in both oils and watercolours that he was unmatched in his ability to portray wildlife and the English landscape in all its beauty.
I count myself fortunate to have known him and his family and to be able to count them as close friends.
Intensely patriotic, by a happy chance even his initials were G.B. he was proud to live and work in Great Britain. And he has left a visual legacy of the countryside that will be enjoyed and admired by generations into the future.”
-- Pauline Ridgwell - 05 Oct 2006