How Eric paid extraordinary price for frame

The 'heraldic barn owl' photographed by Eric Hosking in 1948, and featured in 'The Wonder of Birds'

The 'heraldic barn owl' photographed by Eric Hosking in 1948, and featured in 'The Wonder of Birds' exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. - Credit: Archant

The Wonder of Birds: Eric Hosking's stunning photographs helped open our eyes to the marvels of owls and other birds - but he paid an extraordinary price for his life's passion, as TREVOR HEATON reports.

Eric Hosking setting up an automatic trip for use with High Speed Flash to Photograph birds in fligh

Eric Hosking setting up an automatic trip for use with High Speed Flash to Photograph birds in flight -1948 - Credit: Archant

It's one of the most famous nature photographs ever taken - so famous that it even has a name.

Eric Hosking's 1948 shot of a barn owl in Suffolk with its prey was taken at the perfect moment when the bird's wings seemed to be imitating those found on a medieval crest or shield.

And so it was dubbed 'the heraldic barn owl', and it has a proud place in the current exhibition The Wonder of Birds, now running at Norwich Castle Museum, and which also features two more of Hosking's trail-blazing images, all taken in Suffolk.

For trail-blazer he was, as his son David - himself a nature photographer - makes clear. 'What you've got to do is put yourself in the position of what photography was like then,' he said. 'Everything was fairly basic and a lot of effort was needed in taking the picture.

'When my father took the owl picture high speed electronic flash bulbs had only just come on the market, and he realised how he could use them in his work. People had never seen pictures of birds flying at night like that before then.

'The flash was activated automatically by an infra-red switch trip, but when my father first started taking pictures the flash was activated by hand.'

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In those days, it was all hit and miss. Hours of patient waiting could be undone by being a split-second too late on the shutter. Eric Hosking wrote about having to listen for the beat of wings in the dark before activating the flash and hoping something would be usable. It called for incredible dedication, patience and ingenuity in using and exploiting techology to the very edge of its possibilities.

And for Eric, something else: courage. For while on a photographic mission in Wales in 1937, tragedy struck. He was climbing up a pylon hide when he was attacked by a female tawny owl, one of whose talons caught him in his left eye.

'He went to the specialist who told him there was a danger of infection spreading to his other eye - opthalmia I think they call it. So he had the terrible choice of risking that or losing his injured eye. He realised that you only need one eye to take pictures, so that was that.

'He was very philosophical about it,' David said. 'You have to remember that it was a very long time ago, before antibiotics. If they had been available he wouldn't have lost his eye.'

It would be easy for an experience like that to put you off photography - and nature - for life. But not Eric. He bore no ill-will towards the species, or the individual bird. 'I have always considered that the owl was only 'doing its duty',' he wrote later. His autobiography was even called 'An Eye For A Bird'. But for all his sang-froid, the incident must have haunted him to some extent, for he also wrote: 'Every time I hear a tawny owl, the hair on the back of my neck rises and and queer shivers run down my spine.'

Ironically, the ensuing newspaper coverage made him a national figure and helped launch his career, a career which extended over six decades and made him one of the world's best-known bird photographers.

For The Wonder of Birds, David, who lives in a farmhouse a few miles from Wetheringsett, near Stowmarket, has chosen three of his father's owl pictures.

'The first was taken in 1933 of a barn owl on a post. My father knew that the owls often stopped there, so it was a question of pre-focusing and waiting, hoping that a bird would arrive while there was still enough light.

'Getting flash pictures in that era was a problem, because the only thing available was igniting magnesium powder. But that produced a lot of smoke and could easily set fire to the hide.

'The second picture [from 1936] shows a barn owl with a rat, taken after the introduction of flash bulbs on the market. You have to realise how amazing this was for people - they never seen a picture of owls after dark before.'

And then there's the heraldic owl, which Eric himself described as a 'one in a million' pose. The photograph has been published all over the world, and became so famous that Eric even had a brooch with ruby eyes made inspired by it for his wife Dorothy (David's sister Margaret now has it).

Fittingly, it's also the logo for the Eric Hosking Trust, which David runs with his brother Robin and the other trustees. 'After my father died [in 1991] I was impressed by all the letters that came in from so many people talking about how their lives had been influenced by him, so we decided to set up the trust.

'It gives bursaries to support ornithological research, art and writing. We've given out dozens of awards since 1993, and I'm really proud about one of the latest, from Vivian Fu from Hong Kong.

'She's trying to raise awareness of the critically endangered spoon billed sandpiper, so she's made an animation for school children. It's brilliant and now the BBC look like they're taking it up.'

David is also a working nature photographer himself, and helps run the FLPA wildlife picture agency website. Looking back, David has three key memories of what made him decided to follow his father's career. 'One of my earliest memories is sitting on his knee in his dark room and marvelling at how a piece of paper could suddenly have an image on it.

'And then when I was 11 we went to Minsmere – he was very friendly with the warden – and he set me up in the public hide with a camera. I took a picture of a sandwich tern which my father sold to the RSPB and other publications over the years,' he added.

And if that wasn't quite enough, a 1970 trip to the then-novel tourist destination of the Galapagos Islands – its unique wildlife made famous by Charles Darwin – while he was still at school finally did the trick. 'From that day onwards I was utterly focused on a career in nature photography,' he said.

David's career also gives him an acute insight into the remarkable skill and dedication of his father. 'He used a camera which used quarter-plate glass negatives, one exposure per side. A day's photography could be just 12 pictures, and you had to hope there was something usable. To show the contrast with today, the memory card on my latest camera holds 10,000 images.'

The best of his father's archive, ranging across glass plates, transparencies and negatives has now been scanned in digitally to preserve it for posterity. It's run from the farmhouse which has been the home for David's family for 26 years. 'My children were very small and we were living in London. We very keen that the boys should be brought up the country, and I knew Suffolk well, so we bought this place.'

A good place, then, for hearing and observing owls, which would have surely only have delighted his father. Eric Hosking once wrote: 'There can be no doubt that my favourites in the whole world of birds are the owls, those amazing birds of the night.'

And David, too, has his own ideas about why we are so fascinated by them. 'Maybe it's because they're nocturnal or semi-nocturnal they are so difficult to observe. And those faces are quite captivating – just look at the barn owl.'

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