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Gordon Beningfield and his beloved Hertfordshire landscapes

PUBLISHED: 16:01 08 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:01 08 May 2018

Gordon Beningfield (with kind permission of the Beningfield family)

Gordon Beningfield (with kind permission of the Beningfield family)

with kind permission of the Beningfield family

On the 20th anniversary of his death, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust explores the work of nature artist Gordon Beningfield and the Hertfordshire landscapes he treasured

Gordon Beningfield was one of Britain’s most talented wildlife and countryside artists and a great supporter of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

Gordon grew up in East London where his father was a lighterman on the Thames. During the Second World War the family was evacuated to rural Hertfordshire, a place Gordon would come to love.

Gordon’s skill with paint and pencil was soon recognised by his teachers, and his father encouraged him to take up an apprenticeship at ecclesiastical art restoration company Faithcraft in St Albans. Here he excelled at carving, gilding, painting and sketching, going on to be considered by many as the finest glass engraver of his generation.

In 1958 Gordon married and settled first in Redbourn and later at nearby Water End. It was here in the Herts countryside on the edge of the Chilterns that he continued to perfect his craft through careful observation of the wildlife around him. Gordon was a countryman at heart and the countryside and its wild inhabitants were often the subject of his paintings and drawings.

Gordon Beningfield's watercolour of a wall brown butterfly, now sadly extinct in Hertfordshire (The Dacorum Heritage Trust)Gordon Beningfield's watercolour of a wall brown butterfly, now sadly extinct in Hertfordshire (The Dacorum Heritage Trust)

Later in his career he contributed to a number of television programmes and was commissioned by the Royal Mail to create a set of stamps showing endangered butterflies. His friends describe him as a friendly, loyal man with an intense desire to capture on paper, canvas, glass or bronze the magical beauty of the English countryside.

One of his favourite subjects was the butterfly. A fantastic field entomologist, he enjoyed watching and collecting butterflies from childhood. His passion translated into the publication of his first book Beningfield’s Butterflies in 1978 and an accompanying exhibition of the original paintings sold out under huge demand. He went on to publish further books and collections, each of which combined a celebration of the English countryside with a clear call for action to care for our special landscapes.

As a strong advocate of nature conservation he lent his support to Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. In the spring of 1983 he gave an illustrated talk for members, and officially opened

Longspring Wood Nature Reserve in Kings Langley in 1986. His love of wildlife and dedication to the cause led to his appointment as vice president of HMWT in 1993. A year later when the trust marked its 30th anniversary, Gordon spoke at the celebration party in Letchworth.

Adbury Nowers - a butterfly success story (photo: Josh Kubale)Adbury Nowers - a butterfly success story (photo: Josh Kubale)

In the 20 years since his death, the trust has continued to carry out vital conservation work in the Chilterns landscape that was Gordon’s inspiration. A highlight of this work is the restoration of Aldbury Nowers’ valuable chalk grassland to improve butterfly habitat. A decade of work at the site near Tring has seen intensive habitat management activity including scrub control, creating edge habitat, grazing, cutting and raking which has created a mosaic of vegetation structures, nectar sources, basking spots, connectivity of habitats and coppiced glade.

The work at Aldbury Nowers has improved overall butterfly numbers with an increase from the 1,700 counted in 2007 to 3,953 in 2013. Priority butterfly species, such as the dingy skipper and grizzled skipper have risen year-on-year. Between 2010 and 2017, 34 species were recorded at the reserve.

A real success story is the small blue. It is our smallest UK butterfly and lives in little colonies feeding on its sole food plant, kidney vetch. Its numbers are rapidly declining and it disappeared from Aldbury Nowers for a time. However, within two years of habitat restoration the small blue returned. Last year, its eggs were found on its food plant, proving that the species is now breeding on the reserve. This success is the outcome of connecting the site to a nearby colony, putting the trust’s ‘living landscape’ vision into practice.

Celebrating Beningfield

During 2018 a range of organisations are hosting events celebrating Gordon Beningfield’s life and work and to bring you closer to the wildlife he loved.

April 14: Bird walk on the River Ver

June 15-17: Big Wild Weekend at Great Gaddesden Flower Festival, St John the Baptist Church, plus family fun and guided walks with the Gade Valley Society.

July 6-8: Beningfield’s Wildlife Weekend, Natural History Museum, Tring.

Talks, activities, stalls and games.

September 14-16: Celebration of Gordon Beningfield’s work with the Boxmoor Trust.

Further details of all these events can be found at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/gordonbeningfield

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