From poor village boy to friend of an American President, Cherry Kearton, a Yorkshireman who inspired David Attenborough to become a wildlife film-maker, receives a television tribute next week. WR Mitchell reports on a remarkable life
Sir David Attenborough says Cherry Kearton was one of his childhood heroes, and has been a continuing influence on his career. It all started when he saw Kearton giving a lecture on wildlife film-making, and was inspired to follow in his footsteps.
"He's such a big figure that he's coloured my life in many ways," says Sir David. "He was one of the great pioneers. He was as good as anybody in his time, and
I would have thought ahead of almost everybody."
Sir David acknowledges his debt in a television film
I, too, was inspired. My introduction to the Kearton brothers came when, as a small boy living in the sooty world of a Yorkshire milltown, I borrowed a copy of a book entitled With Nature and a Camera, published in 1897. I read with mounting excitement of their visit to St Kilda, a scatter of Scottish islands and eventually I wrote an account of the life and times of the brothers.
Cherry Kearton was a man who liked to be first. He published the first photographically illustrated bird book in the world and was one of the first naturalists to use a telephoto lens. In 1903, he took the first motion pictures of a wild bird and pioneered aerial photography. In Africa, he flew in the first aeroplane to appear there and showed East Africa the first film of its own fauna.
Cherry (the curious Christian name derives from the surname of another family linked to the Keartons), grew up in the shadow of Kisdon, the "island hill" in Swaledale. Short and dumpy but determined, this son of a gamekeeper was brought up in the hamlet of Thwaite and schooled at Muker.
One of his schoolchums was David Harker. "Cherry was a rum lad," David recalled to a reporter from the Yorkshire Post when he was 80. "Always had his breeches backside hanging out, for the family were very poor. We had some fun and sometimes got into trouble. But he was a sharp lad and a very brave one." With his brother, Richard, Cherry spent his early life in upper Swaledale among farmers, gamekeepers – and poachers. In those days the brothers would rise at four in the morning to tramp the lanes to pursue their nature studies. One day Richard fell from a tree while bird-nesting and was permanently lamed.
In a book, My Woodland Home published in 1938, Cherry says: "As a boy in the Yorkshire Dales I well remember one particular horse developing a taste for beer. We had four haytime scythe-mowers at work and in those days beer was provided for the men in stone wicker-covered bottles.
"To keep the liquid cool, it was laid under the newly-mown swathe, which is the line of grass cut by the mowers. Now, immediately the horse entered the field, he would start to search for the beer up and down the swathes and would not cease until he had discovered one of the bottles. Then, in a very short time, he had the cork out and was enjoying the contents, that is, if it was nearly full, for as the bottle spilled sideways the beer had naturally spilled out."
The brothers' big break came when, on misty moors during the grouse-shooting season, Richard imitated the call of a hen grouse and brought several cock birds to within range of the guns. It impressed one of the men in the Swaledale grouse butt who happened to be a director of the famous publishing firm of Cassells. He clearly liked the cut of these two likely lads and first Richard, then Cherry, left the native heath for jobs at Cassells in London.
The brothers took their first natural history photograph on April 11, 1892. Equipped with a camera that cost 5 shillings, they depicted the nest and eggs of a song thrush. They pioneered ideas we take for granted, one being the hide in which the photographer was ensconced while a friend walked away, satisfying the birds that danger had passed. Hides were made to resemble such countryfied objects as the stump of a tree – complete with splashes of paint representing bird droppings.
Cherry toured Britain with Richard and despite his bulk seemed able to insert himself into all sorts of unlikely locations. The bravery that his old Swaledale schoolchum David Harker had noted was often evident as he dared to dangle from cliffs with his clumping gear to film nesting seabirds or risked hypothermia as he stood shoulder deep in water to photograph ospreys. The brothers parted company professionally when Richard turned to writing and lecturing, illustrating his reports on wildlife with what were quaintly known as lantern slides.
When two brothers called Spencer brought the first airship to Britain in 1908 and announced their plan
to circle St Paul's Cathedral, Cherry was desperate to go with them and be the first to take cine-film from
The airship looks a Heath Robinson affair – a 70ft long gasbag and an arrangement of bamboo rods suspended from netting with a basket beneath to accommodate three passengers. Cherry's idea was to drop the film, once the flight was completed, on the roof of a film studio in Wardour Street so that it could be readied for public viewing in minimum time.
On May 4, they took off from a gasworks near London with a cine-camera lashed to the airship's bamboo frame. Several thousand feet up, the fuel pipe fractured and the engine stopped. It looked like curtains as the airship started to fall out of control but Cherry kept the camera turning.
This is how he described the violent landing: "We were thrown off our feet and fell into a confusion of bamboo and tubing and pipes, with the gasbag all on top of us; but we scrambled out unhurt..." The camera survived and the views of London, as its citizens had never seen it before, were rushed into a local theatre next day for screening.
The following year Cherry's serious globe-trotting began. Never happy when cooped up indoors, he was fired by the adventures of the great Victorian explorers. He quit his job to become the first freelance photographer of wildlife.
One of the biggest news events of 1909 was
former President Theodore Roosevelt's safari into Africa and Cherry hauled his cumbersome, hand-cranked cine-camera out to the then little-known Serengeti Plain and the Ngorongoro Crater – vast natural features, swarming with animals – to get pictures of the great man who did not do things
In the company of his son, Kermit, President Roosevelt led 250 porters and guides across British East Africa, into the Belgian Congo and back to the Nile ending in Khartoum. The idea was to collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institute and by the end of the trip Roosevelt boasted that he had got "the most noteworthy collection of big animals that has ever come out of Africa".
In those days "collected" meant killed. By the time Theodore and Kermit put their guns down, 512 animals, including 17 lion, 11 elephant and 20 rhinoceros, were no more. But the images of the exploits of these celebrity white hunters were potentially valuable for whoever could get them
out of Africa.
Back in Chicago, a film company thought they could cash in on the public's appetite for the story. They employed an actor to impersonate Roosevelt and filmed him on their own California game preserve. The result was a documentary from darkest Africa which was completely bogus.
Meanwhile, Cherry was making the real thing. The fraudulent film looked a sorry affair when when
the Motion Picture Patents Company released Roosevelt in Africa – the authorised cinematic record of the safari supervised by Cherry and verified as authentic by Teddy Roosevelt. Among the images captured by Kearton's camera were the first-ever scenes of tribeswomen in their native habitat. Roosevelt and Cherry were big men who liked to think big. After their African experience the two became friends.
Cherry was a showman who gave himself equal prominence with the wildlife. He was also a romancer who, in those days when moving pictures were in their infancy, was not above using a bit of fakery to wow his audiences.
He wrote of an African hunting sequence featuring 15 hired Masai tribesmen where a lion, which had taken cover in bushes, was flushed by Cherry's fox terrier Pip. The dog's role was to stand at the edge of the bushes and bark. But Pip went straight for the lion, fixing its sharp teeth in the beast's tail as it broke cover. Experts who examined the shaky, grainy film thought the lion might have been tethered. For the television film, some original film taken in Africa was located in the Cherry Kearton archive at the Natural History Museum.
In 1913, Cherry had another first – a "talkie" movie of sorts. This was an adaptation of a stage spectacular called The Miracle. The words spoken by the actors were pre-recorded and other sounds, such as footsteps, closing doors and church bells, were conveyed "live", along with a musical accompaniment.
When war came, he turned his hand to shooting newsreels on the Western Front before enlisting
with the Legion of Frontiersmen to fight in East Africa.
He married a singer from South Africa, a soprano called Ada Forrest. In the 1930s, she regularly came to Harrogate to take the cure and to revel in the recollection of many local concert triumphs there. Cherry's final trip to his native Swaledale was in 1934 to make the opening sequences of an autobiographical film The Big Game of Life. It was the trade presentation of the film that brought him on his last visit to Yorkshire in 1935.
Cherry was reunited in a sense with Richard when commemorative plaques were attached to their old school. Martin Withers of the Zoological Photographic Club came and summed up their careers. He said they brought to the attention of the public the beauty and wealth of nature – and acted as a catalyst for today's worldwide conservation movement.
Punch said admiringly of Cherry Kearton: "No man has seen so many animals since the days of Noah."
Sir David Attenborough is in no doubt about the impact he had.
"Certainly in terms of affecting his audience, including small boys like me, he was out there on his own. He was a freelance performer. He had a passion for wildlife, but he had to sell it to an audience – and he sold it through his own personality. The ability to get the shots was the big thing. What Cherry Kearton did was to get the shots – he got amazing shots."
Watch the Birdie. The Life and Times of Richard and Cherry Kearton by
WR Mitchell, Castleberg, is available from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop by calling free on 0800 0153232.
Order on-line at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing costs 1.95.
Nation on Film: Wildlife, BBC2 Monday, February 26, 7.30pm.