Tributes to John Philip Busby 1928 – 2015

John drawing I of May


JOHN BUSBY, RSA, RSW, was born in Bradford and lived in Wharfedale where he developed his early interest in nature. He studied at Leeds & Edinburgh Colleges of Art. Postgraduate and major travel scholarships took him to France and Italy before he joined the teaching staff at Edinburgh College of Art in 1956. He ‘retired’ in 1988 to return to being a full time artist.

He exhibited widely, and is represented in many public collections. He had a major retrospective exhibition covering all aspects of his work at Bradford City Art Gallery in 1999 and will have another at Nature in Art, Gloucestershire from 4 August to 6 Sept 2015

He was President of the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) 1976-79, elected to the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) and to the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA).
Landscape, and particularly the abstract geometry of landscape, was always the main focus of his work, but meeting Eric Ennion in Northumberland in the 1950s turned his bird watching hobby into what became a major part of his artistic output. He was a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) and was also External Assessor for Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art, 1989-92 and again in 2000.

In 1989 he began a Seabird Drawing course based at North Berwick which has continued every year since, and he has led courses in Switzerland, Crete, the Falklands, Galapagos and at Nature in Art in Gloucestershire.

He took part in projects with the international Artists for Nature Foundation (ANF) in Holland, Poland, Spain, Ireland, India, Portugal, and Israel, and in SWLA/Forestry Commission projects in the New Forest and the Oakwoods in the west of Scotland.

To his great delight, in 2009 he was declared ‘Master Wildlife Artist 2009’ by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin – the USA’s most prestigious wildlife art institution.

John illustrated over 35 books about birds and animals, mostly about behaviour, ranging from seabirds to tigers, garden birds to otters, plus a book of poems – Wild Horses – by Kenneth Steven.

His own books are:-
The Living Birds of Eric Ennion (Gollanz 1982);
Drawing Birds produced for the RSPB in 1986, with a second edition in 2004;
Birds in Mallorca (Christopher Helm 1988);
Nature Drawings (Arlequin Press 1993);
Land Marks & Sea Wings (Lavenham 2005);
Landscapes at the Edge of the Sea (booklet) 2010
Looking at Birds (Langford Press 2013);
His last book Lines in Nature (Langford Press) is due to be published in 2015

John lived near Ormiston in East Lothian, and was married to Joan, singer and singing teacher. Music was an abiding passion and he was a lifelong Christian. He died peacefully, aged 87, on 3 June 2015.


An account of John’s funeral by Mark Boyd

The weather in Musselburgh was surprisingly bright and warm, which reflected the spirit of the occasion. Despite the obvious sadness at losing someone as special to us as John, the overall feeling of the day was of light, of love and of joy.

St Peter’s in Musselburgh is a 19th Century gothic-style church with a steeply pitched roof and stained glass windows. It is a bright space. Although its seating capacity is around 140, it was packed, with several rows of people having to stand, either at the back or looking in from various side doors.

The service was Christian, reflecting John’s strong personal faith, with the hymns sung being “Angel Voices Ever Singing”, “The King Of Love My Shepherd Is”, and “Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation”. As well as readings of Psalm 121; Mark 12; 26-34 and Ephesians 3: 14-21, two poems were read: “So What Is Love” by Monica Newell and one that I remember John talking about, “Going Downhill On A Bicycle. A Boy’s Song” by Henry Charles Beeching. I can’t find the former online, but the latter is in the public domain here. Read it, and think of John.

Members of John’s family and friends spoke eloquently about John, helping to round out the picture of a man that many of us perhaps knew from only one aspect of life. The four main strands covered were John’s family life, as husband, father and sibling (including his invention of highly imaginative childhood games); his church life, as committed Christian, youth worker and church treasurer (despite an aversion to admin); his musical life with Joan; and, of course, his artistic life. Darren Woodhead spoke well about this last aspect.

Rev Andrew Keulemans handled the service sensitively and was clearly personally affected by John’s passing. The feeling of warmth and thanks throughout the service and the dignified competence of everyone who spoke echoed John’s own air of well-mannered passion.

Following a private cremation, the congregation gathered at The Quay in Musselburgh, for a celebration of John’s life. The venue couldn’t have been better, as it looked out on to a muddy estuary with waders and gulls in evidence.


Greg Septon

It was in the early 1980’s when I first discovered one of John’s watercolors in a shop in Edinburgh. Peter Summers of the Royal Museum & I had stopped there after lunch one day and there in the window was a rendering of gulls and cormorants – a lovely, subtle watercolor that captured the atmosphere as well as the anatomy, behavior and inter relationships of its subjects. My first thoughts were – this guy did his homework!
When I asked Peter about the artist, he smiled and asked of I’d like to meet him to which I replied “absolutely” and day later I met John and Joan. Their home that Robin so deftly described was a welcoming and warm place that exuded history, talent and calm. I remember visiting with John in his studio that day and marveling at the both the immediacy and confident application in his bird paintings and drawings and was blown away by the sheer volume of his work. His ability to accurately capture bird behavior including moments in flight were remarkable.
At the time Peter & I were the bird taxidermists at our respective museums and shared a true appreciation for John’s depth of knowledge related to bird behavior and anatomy and the ability to accurately and artfully portray that knowledge.
Over the ensuing 20-year period I traveled to Scotland often and the highlight of every visit was stopping by to see John & Joan. In 1994 John & Joan visited Milwaukee to take part in ANF’s opening of its Portrait of a Living Marsh exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. One evening during their visit Joan sang for us around the fire pit which is something I’ll never forget.

On another visit to the Netherlands I recall John stopping along the roadside where he watched Ysbrand & I hunting in the adjacent fields. Afterwards without a paint brush to be had anywhere, John plucked a feather from a recently harvested goose and began using this to create watercolor field sketches of the fresh specimens at hand.
Over the years I was fortunate to acquire an additional number of John’s pencil sketches and watercolors four of which are behind me on the wall in my office. The red grouse coming up over a rise on the moors makes me flinch as if ready to shoulder a shotgun – the same for the flushing woodcock – both are captured moments in time that ring true. A watercolor of a peregrine in pursuit of a red grouse over August moors portrays that moment when the falcon slightly turns and brakes for a millisecond before striking its prey – John nailed it!
I’m in the midst of peregrine banding season once again and in addition to recording band numbers and related data, those in attendance usually assign names to each eyass to make them more relatable to the public who follow their lives for years afterwards.
In honor of John, I named the first male I banded this morning after him – his image is at the top of this page. John will be greatly missed but the influence he had on so many of us will live on.
Greg Septon

Martin Gibbons

I remember the first time I met John it zas on the seabird drawing course I had been learning field sketching and had bought his rspb book, reading it more times than I can remember, then turned up at the north berwick hotel very nervously , and there was John Busby standing there , I was awestruck that I had the privilege of attending a course with such a great artist , over the week I think John could see I was a ‘beginner and new boy’ to this sketching game and he came over a few times and helped by showing me where a certain line would help and by doing so transformed my sketches , he gave a presentation on my first course which I shall always remember , he talked about ‘ feeling the bird’ imagining it was in your hands holding the bird, feeling it’s roundness , his compassion was addictive, I thoroughly enjoyed the course because of John.

The next time I went on the course we had a few more chats and discussions and I remember sitting in ducks hotel and John running through one of his other books with me while we had a cup of tea together telling me about every sketch he had done , I could see in his eyes the enthusiasm and joy when he recounted each page how he felt and why he had done the sketch , occasionally with a little chuckle to himself

I suppose we met in passing but I felt we had a connection through sketching which is my passion and was obviously Johns , he was a master at it , and I am glad our paths crossed and I will always remember vividly that hand coming over my shoulder saying ‘ look closer , look at that angle and with a swift movement of his pencil there it was,

A great artist but most of all a remarkable person , compassionate and humble man and a real gentleman

I’m going this year and I’m sure his spirit will be with everybody walking about on the cliff tops at st abb’s watching over all of HIS students

Martin Gibbons

John and Ailsa Potten

Whilst not an artist or member,  I thought you might be interested in memories of John.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to be at Minsmere in April 1997 during an event entitled Avocets and Artist.  We attended a demonstration of drawing birds by John and afterwards gave him a lift in our little Citroën AX from the then visitor Centre to the cottage he was staying in.  John popped into the cottage and returned with an Avocet sketch which remains with us,  now framed,  to this day,  along with a little Michael Warren watercolour we were lucky enough to obtain for a £5 donation!

A gentlemen always,  John will be sorely missed.


Anna Hughes

I have followed the school of John Busby for many years and am proud to own one original. His influence shaped a lot of artists and their works and many thanks to him.