Martin Woodcock obituary

Amid the economic uncertainty of the mid 1970s not many people gave up a job in the City of London. But in 1974, Martin Woodcock did just that, swapping life as a stockbroker to become a freelance bird artist.

He never looked back. Martin, who has died aged 84, spent the rest of his distinguished career travelling through Asia and Africa to observe, draw and paint some of the world’s most elusive birds. His masterwork, which kept him busy for almost three decades, was the monumental, multivolume The Birds of Africa, for which he painted more than 200 colour plates.

Martin Woodcock in 2006. He gave up a career as stockbroker in the City of London to become a freelance bird artist.

Martin Woodcock in 2006. He gave up a career as stockbroker in the City of London to become a freelance bird artist. Photograph: Barbara Woodcock

Born in Sidcup, Kent, Martin was educated in Sussex at Ashdown House prep school, Forest Row, and Christ’s Hospital, Horsham. His father, Percy, who died when Martin was six months old, was a stockbroker; his mother, Norah (nee Blake), worked as a secretary at the BBC. His only sister, Nan, was 12 years older than him, so as a child he was often left to his own devices.

A history teacher, Bert Bury, encouraged his interest in birds, which had been sparked by an encounter with a flock of goldfinches at the age of eight. Exploring Ashdown Forest by bicycle, with the Battle of Britain raging overhead, Martin began keeping an illustrated diary of the birds he saw, a habit he continued for the rest of his life.

He taught himself to draw at a young age, and was influenced by the early 20th-century painters Archibald Thorburn and George Edward Lodge. But in those days, there were virtually no opportunities for professional bird artists; so after national service in the Royal Artillery (1954-56), Martin followed his late father into stockbroking, staying in the profession for the next 18 years.

The impetus to switch careers came when he was asked to illustrate the forthcoming Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, written by the ornithologists Ben King and Edward C Dickinson, which was published by Collins in 1975. Other commissions soon followed, but it was The Birds of Africa that gave him his big break, and some level of security in a precarious profession. He illustrated all seven volumes published between 1982 and 2004 (an eighth book appeared in 2013).

Spoonbills on Cley marshes by Martin Woodcock

Spoonbills on Cley marshes by Martin Woodcock

Martin had first visited Africa in 1961, staying with Nan at her home in Kampala, Uganda. In his delightfully informal Safari Sketchbook (2010), he recalled that the very first bird he drew was a kingfisher, which he found dead on the tarmac after landing at Entebbe, “before I had taken 10 steps on [Africa’s] red earth”.

Watcher’s Cottage by Martin Woodcock. It is used by the warden of Cley marshes, Norfolk, and owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Watcher’s Cottage by Martin Woodcock. It is used by the warden of Cley marshes, Norfolk, and owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Illustration: Martin Woodcock

For much of the 1980s and 90s, Martin went on research expeditions throughout the continent, making field notes and sketches of some of the world’s rarest birds, many of which had never been illustrated before. By the time the project finished, he had completed over 5,000 separate illustrations of more than 2,000 different species.

In 1994, Martin became the first chair (and later president) of the African Bird Club. His experience, network of contacts and the high regard in which he was held by the African birding community soon helped to establish the organisation at the forefront of international conservation efforts.

Following encouragement from friends, Martin published in 2013 a slim volume of poetry, Drawing Together, which revealed an acute eye for observation and sensitivity to language. In one poem, A Tale of Two Wars, he recalled his crucial early encounter with the goldfinches, “like lively notes hung on a silver stave, traced out in scarlet, white and gold”.

In 1963, he had married Heidi Schön, with whom he had three children, Marcus, Nicola and Kirsten. They divorced in 1971. A year later, Martin met Barbara Skailes (nee Paine), who had two children, Duncan and Geraldine. They married in 1977 and brought up their children together.

After moving to north Norfolk in 2000, Martin continued to draw and paint, while the energetic Barbara carried on her picture-framing business.

Even when diagnosed with cancer late last year, he continued to welcome visits from friends. He would regale them with entertaining stories, reflective thoughts about the decline of so many of his beloved birds, and new poems. The last time I saw him, he spoke about that life-changing moment when he gave up his career to become, as he put it, a penniless bird artist – a decision about which he had absolutely no regrets.

He is survived by Barbara, his three children, two stepchildren and 14 grandchildren.

Martin Wedgwood Woodcock, bird illustrator and artist, born 14 January 1935; died 24 February 2019


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