Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Picture: WILL WILLIAMS
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Nature's polyglot: the life and work of Derek Ratcliffe

Mark Cocker remembers the great naturalist's remarkable constellation of talents.

Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Illustration: Will Williams


Nature’s Conscience: the Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe
Edited by Des Thompson, Hilary Birks and John Birks
Langford Press, 571pp, £29.99

I remember vividly an occasion when a journalist friend pronounced with all the conviction of the uninformed that a well-known writer on nature was also the nation’s greatest naturalist. In truth, literary merit has little to do with field ability. Being good at finding wild creatures or plants depends on two things: acute senses and the ability to shut down the internal monologue so that the whole of one’s attention can be devoted to the search image in question.

The naturalist’s third prerequisite is the power to recall the thousands of bits of information that enable them to turn what they see into an identifiable organism. Being good at species recognition is rather like mastery of a language. To know your flowers is like speaking fluent Spanish. To know all Britain’s flowering plants and then the ferns and sedges is comparable with an overarching mastery of Spanish, Catalan and Italian.

Most naturalists, however, are monolingual. Rare is the person who knows two groups of organism fluently and rarest of all is a naturalist such as Derek Ratcliffe, who had an astonishing ability to distinguish plants, ferns, sedges, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), insects, birds and practically everything else. His talent was like that of the mythic polyglot who speaks Spanish, Arabic, Persian and Japanese. When he died in 2005 one of this book’s editors proposed him as the greatest naturalist since Darwin. In the intervening decade no other name has suggested itself.

Yet naturalists are a strange lot. Many of them neither care, nor are able to make their beloved part of nature accessible to any but others exactly like themselves. Too often they cherish the impenetrable code of their discipline, steeped in scientific Latin and Greek. Who among us ordinary mortals can be bothered to get on terms with something known only as Anastrophyllum jorgensenii or Bryoerythrophyllum caledonicum?

The true measure of Ratcliffe’s abilities is that he knew the secret languages of moss taxonomists and plant biologists but could also write and speak in the lingua franca of us all. This book is a glorious, multi-authored exploration of the many parts of this great naturalist: writer, scientist, mountaineer, explorer, photographer and unremitting champion of the wild. It is also a summing up of his place in British natural history, which amounts now almost to a cult.

Ratcliffe’s constellation of talents was especially manifest in two achievements. Rachel Carson may have issued the broad-spectrum warning on pesticides in her book Silent Spring (1962) but it was Ratcliffe with friends who nailed exactly how organochlorine compounds were driving predators, including everything from pelicans to peregrines, towards extinction.

His paper of 1970, unravelling the science of pesticides, was cited as one of the 100 most important ever published in any British ecological journal. Against great opposition from vested commercial and agricultural interests, Ratcliffe’s hard and hard-won facts – he personally monitored 500 peregrine eyries to get the raw data – eventually led to an international ban on the offending pollutants.

A lesser-known part of his CV was his almost single-handed drafting of A Nature Conservation Review (1977), now a scriptural text for environmentalists, which laid out the whereabouts and character of Britain’s chief natural riches. Over the past half-century, this has been a blueprint for national policy and it also shaped the organisational criteria for pan-European legislation on nature and natural resources. Arguably only someone with Ratcliffe’s 360-degree field skills, encyclopaedic knowledge and intellectual clarity could have synthesised so much data so succinctly.

Curiously, the least satisfying essays in Nature’s Conscience are those in which the authors strive to re-emphasise Ratcliffe’s importance. He needs no bias. Yet ultimately the leeway that the book’s editors offer to all the contributors encourages them to stray routinely into a much wider hinterland of environmental material. Ratcliffe’s life story thus serves as a totem pole around which has been assembled an entire history of British conservation since the 1940s.

Our hero had one cardinal failing, however. He was so much a man of truth that he became easy prey to those for whom facts were relative. Numerous friends bore witness to his time as chief scientific officer at the Nature Conservancy Council. At many higher-level meetings Ratcliffe was forced to sit in seething, white-knuckled silence and endure the presence of his political bosses who, for 18 years, were largely landed Thatcherite Conservatives.

Unfortunately he did not live to see how nature and nature writing have become so much a part of mainstream popular culture. A recent spate of books has achieved high prominence but has moved far from what was considered orthodox natural history in Ratcliffe’s day. The new works dwell on suburban wildlife, edgeland landscapes, or wildlife species kept as pets. Very often the main theme is the ego and personality of the individual author. One wonders what Ratcliffe would have made of these developments. All we can say is that, in his own engagement with wild places and wild species, nature asserted its true north.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood