The Birdman of Farfield – John Philip Busby (1928-2015)

The four Quakers who bought Farfield Meeting House in 1956 had barely been in possession for 18 months when they received a letter forwarded from Dacre, Son and Hartley, the estate agents who had sold it to them. It was written by Eric Busby of Menston, formerly one of the directors of Busby’s department store in Bradford. On 7 January 1958 he wrote under the heading ‘Friends Meeting House, Farfield’ as follows:

John, my son, has now returned to Edinburgh. On Sunday last we had a look at the exterior of the above property. “We love the place.” It might well be the perfect answer…
… If we are the fortunate purchasers at the right price we will undertake to preserve the appearance of the property as now. The uses of the same would be as a working studio, not as living quarters. It would be necessary to let light though the West roof. This could be done without spoiling the roof design in any way.

Needless to say, the four Friends were not about to sell but they did come to an understanding with the Busbys and a lease was drawn up for seven years from September 1959 that allowed John Busby to use the Meeting House as his studio and for Eric Busby to be responsible for the maintenance of the building.

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John Busby was born in Bradford and educated at Ilkley Grammar School. After National Service he trained at Leeds College of Art and then at Edinburgh College of Art where he was awarded postgraduate and travel scholarships which took him to Italy and France. On his return he was invited to join the staff in Edinburgh where he taught drawing and painting from 1956 until 1988.

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The landscape of Wharfedale, where John grew up, shaped his thoughts in childhood.

He explored streams to the source, cycled the quiet war-time roads, drew and learned the rhythms of nature. He was particularly drawn to bird-painting and assisted by Walter Flesher, a gamekeeper on Ilkley Moor, he explored the surrounding countryside, making notes on OS maps, as seen here: at age 17, John was a founder member of the Wharfedale Naturalists’ Society. Some of his earliest published drawings in 1948 were in The Dalesman. As well as a painter of wildlife, John was a dedicated landscape artist whose work was often executed in bold colours, in styles ranging from highly representational to near abstract. Views of the land from above – a bird’s eye view – seemed to fascinate Busby and the expansiveness of the sky also held great appeal, becoming very nearly the sole subject of some paintings.

So it was no surprise that John should have been drawn to Farfield as a place to paint, presumably largely in the summer vacations. The photo above shows him in the meeting house in 1961 surrounded by some of his landscapes of the period. One cannot help wondering how much he absorbed of the atmosphere of the place. John Busby was a life-long Christian and very much thought of his landscapes as being linked to the inner life:
“ …The roots of landscape experience go deep into our subconscious and its mood’s reflect our states of being…. landscape becomes a metaphor in art and music and literature for spiritual dimensions”

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But John Busby’s lasting reputation was as a wildlife artist and the author of the RSPB’s handbook – Drawing Birds – first published in 1986 and still in print. From 1988 he ran an annual seabird drawing course based on the East Lothian coast around Bass Rock – the gannet was one of his special loves. He insisted on drawing or painting from life and on the importance of an understanding of bird anatomy for capturing the fleeting movements of birds, particularly in flight. His effects were achieved with minimal lines and washes which gave a result which looked effortless but was based on a lifetime’s work. He was a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists and a key member of the Artists for Nature Foundation.

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John Busby’s period of painting at Farfield may have represented a small part of Farfield’s long history and one which left no imprint on the building itself but, as Farfield friends look forward to welcoming our first art exhibition to the meeting house, it is one well worth remembering.

Chris Skidmore