Norfolk wildlife artist who became a Christmas tradition

This painting of a bearded tit from 1930 was Jack Harrison's first Christmas card for the trust.

This painting of a bearded tit from 1930 was Jack Harrison's first Christmas card for the trust. - Credit: Archant

Nick Acheson of Norfolk Wildlife Trust tells the story of local wildlife artist Jack Harrison

In the very early years of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (then no doubt still the Severn Wildfowl Trust) my great-aunt was taken to the marshes and shown a vagrant red-breasted goose by no lesser guide than Peter Scott.

On her return to Norfolk she described the scene to her friend Jack Harrison who painted it. A lovely, misty picture of the red-breasted goose in a winter flock hung for many years in her home. On another occasion she found a capercaillie dead on the road in the Scottish Highlands, put it under the bonnet of her Mini and drove it home to Norfolk for Jack to paint. This painting too, plus others of golden eagles, curlews and African elephants, hung in her Whitwell home until her death.

As a small child, visiting her, I had no idea who Jack Harrison was but, transfixed even then by wild creatures, I was drawn to these beautiful paintings. Today, though my great-aunt's paintings have long gone, I still love the work of this gifted, highly observant artist. What's more I'm grateful to him, for he was a man who used his talent for the good of the birds and other wildlife he loved to paint. This twelfth and last article in our series on the history of Norfolk Wildlife Trust explores its long relationship with Jack Harrison.

In 1930, just four years after Norfolk Naturalists Trust was founded, a Christmas card was promoted to raise funds. It featured a bearded tit painted by Jack Harrison. Its sale had been approved at the Council meeting of October 8 1930, with Messrs Longmanns Green & Co. Ltd. Quoting £26 17s. 0d. as the price for printing 5,000 cards. In the Report of the Council for 1930 it was recorded that the sale of these cards had raised £60 3s. 4d. Thus began an institution which lasted more than 50 years until the artist's death in 1985.

You may also want to watch:

For Christmas 1931 Harrison donated a painting of a male crossbill and 10,000 cards were sold. By 1932 his Christmas cards were still more widely appreciated. In that year Sydney Long, founder and Honorary Secretary, was authorised by Council to commission 15,000 copies of Harrison's delicate painting of a goldfinch to raise funds for the purchase of Alderfen Broad. Their sale was aided by another ally of the Trust, the celebrated correspondent Sir William Beach Thomas, who promoted them in his column in The Spectator:

'The Norfolk Naturalists' Trust is already anticipating Christmas. For the third year it is issuing a Christmas card of an original and delightful sort, for the purpose of buying a sanctuary and financing bird protection. In this most desirable crusade readers of the Spectator have co-operated generously. They bought last year's Christmas card in many hundreds. If as many people buy this year's Goldfinch as bought last year's Crossbill, Alderfen Broad, the most peaceful and complete sanctuary that I ever saw, will be fully purchased.'

Most Read

The cards sold out quickly and soon Sydney Long was writing to apologise to buyers: 'The demand for the above has so greatly exceeded our anticipations that the first consignment is sold out. More are being printed, so that I hope you will accept my apologies for the delay in fulfilling your much appreciated order.'

This goldfinch card for 1932 caught the eye of one most prominent admirer. A letter in the NWT archive reads: 'The King is pleased to accept the Christmas Card of the 'Goldfinch', reproduced from Mr J.C. Harrison, which His Majesty much admires, and I am commanded to convey to you his sincere thanks. His Majesty is gratified to learn that the sale of the card has resulted in the bank overdraft of the Norfolk Naturalists Trust being extinguished.'

The first three paintings had been donated by Jack Harrison to NNT. At the Council meeting on 25 February 1933, however, it was agreed that he be paid for the painting of a pair of mallard to be used on the year's Christmas card. Once again Sir William Beach Thomas came to NNT's aid in The Spectator, and Sydney Long wrote to promote the cards in The Times: 'Last year The Times gave great pleasure to a large number of its readers and their friends by allowing me to tell them of the Christmas card published by the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust. For the first few days after the announcement, and for a long time afterwards, I had a post-bag of such delightful letters, cheques and postal orders as I had not previously experienced. May I now tell these same kind people – and others – that we have published a similar card in colour this year, after the same artist, Mr. J. C. Harrison, to help our fund for the creation of nature reserves? The picture is a pair of mallard, or wild duck, resting on the edge of a dyke in Broadland, a winter scene, considered by many to be the most striking card we have so far published. Price 4s. 6d. a dozen, inclusive of postage and suitable envelopes.'

In January 1939 Sydney Long died, leaving both a remarkable legacy and a huge hole in the organisation which he had created and had steered for more than a decade. At a meeting of the Council on 21 March it was decided, with Jack Harrison's consent, that the year's Christmas card should feature a wheatear.

The note accompanying the 1939 card read: 'This year the profits of the sale of the card are to be put to a special use. The trust has had the misfortune to lose its founder and honorary secretary for many years – Dr. Sydney Long – who died on January 15, 1939. It was due to his untiring personal effort that the trust was formed in 1926 with the object of preserving for all time certain 'sanctuaries' in Norfolk which were in danger of being exploited. One of his greatest wishes, however, was destined not to be fulfilled during his lifetime. Much of the breckland of the county has been afforested in recent years, and he was anxious to secure an area of open breck sufficiently large to preserve its peculiarly interesting fauna and flora intact. The council of the Trust is now negotiating for such a tract, and its intention is to erect on it a simple stone in grateful memory of Dr. Long. The Christmas card this year depicts a Wheatear, a bird typical of the brecks. This bird has been chosen because it was a favourite of the late Dr. S. H. Long, the founder of the Trust and its Honorary Secretary for twelve years.'

Jack Harrison's moody painting of a great grey shrike in 1945 was also sold for a specific purpose, which could not be more germane today. NNT had just bought the Whiteslea Estate at Hickling from the family of the late Lord Desborough and was in sore need of money to fund the purchase. 'The shrike is poised on a bare bough of furze against a stormy sky which shows to advantage its beautiful grey and white plumage and its characteristically long tail. Purchasers will help the Trust at a time when it is in particular need of funds for the establishment of Hickling Broad as a permanent nature reserve.' Today Norfolk Wildlife Trust finds itself once more in urgent need of funds to complete a bold land purchase at Hickling Broad. In late 2016 NWT has reached agreement to buy 655 acres of the Hickling Broad Estate and own the nature reserve in its entirety. An urgent £1 million appeal has been launched. A striking new watercolour by Jack Harrison, perhaps of a crane, Hickling's iconic bird, would no doubt greatly help to raise the money needed.

No such painting will be forthcoming. Having become an honorary life member in 1964, for his untiring commitment to NNT, and having met the Queen on her visit to Ranworth Broad in celebration of NNT's Golden Jubilee in 1976, in 1985 Jack Harrison died. In Tern, published in September 1985, NNT president Alastair McLean wrote of the artist's rare talent and all that he had achieved for conservation in the county.

'With the death of Jack Harrison, the Trust has lost a great friend and patron.

'Associated with the Trust since soon after its inception, he began his series of Christmas cards in 1930, and at least one has been printed each year thereafter. These cards have been eagerly anticipated and have brought immense pleasure both to senders and receivers all over the world. […]

'It was given to few men, be they artists or architects, to give visual, and daily renewable, delight to their fellows. Jack Harrison was such a man and his influence as a bird artist will long remain.'

For more than fifty years Jack Harrison's charming, accurate paintings brought the people of Norfolk closer to the birds which inhabit our beautiful county, and raised crucial money for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. As we do to every man and woman who has featured in this series through 2016, each one of us who loves the wildlife of Norfolk owes a great debt to this talented and committed man. No doubt he would be glad to see his beautiful Christmas cards on sale again today, in support of NWT's appeal to secure the whole of Hickling Broad for wildlife and for people now and into the future.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter