Robert Burton (1941–2022): an appreciation
Often when I’m out walking and the rays of the sun are low enough to pick out innumerable strands of gossamer coating the surrounding vegetation, I am reminded of an early ‘Through a Naturalist’s eyes’ in which Robert Burton weaved a delightful tale of ballooning spiders, Nottinghamshire goose fairs, Gilbert White and the Home Guard in the Second World War. Robert Burton, whose long-standing British Wildlife column ran in every issue from 1995 to 2019, passed away on 15th January, aged 80. Robert (in his natural-history writing for BW he was always Robert, but in his more adventurous life in polar regions he was ‘Bob’) was one of the best communicators I have come across. Receiving his copy was one of the treats of the job. His deceptively easy writing style and reflective tone were much admired by both his readers and fellow contributors. The unfailing ability to draw the reader in by using a gentle anecdote to make a wider point came across in every column he wrote, and his seemingly bottomless well of observations and wisdom meant that each contribution was a joy to read.
I had worked indirectly with Robert in the 1970s when I was editing and researching a revision to a Larousse encyclopaedia of the animal kingdom with his father, Maurice Burton, which Robert also helped to write. Maurice, an expert on sponges and based at the Natural History Museum, had contributed the Nature Notes column to the Daily Telegraph since the 1940s, and Robert had grown up seeing how his father was able to transform everyday wildlife encounters into highly memorable copy. When Maurice stopped writing for the Daily Telegraph in 1989 Robert took on the mantle, which he continued for a further ten years. I had noticed that Robert’s regular articles for the RHS magazine, The Garden, had stopped about this time and I jumped at the chance to include him in British Wildlife. Very soon his column became a key part of the publication.
Although Robert’s BW writings centred on observations made around his village in Bedfordshire, he would write the column between expeditions and trips to both the North and the South Polar regions. In later years he ran regular tours to Greenland and was much in demand as a polar cruise-ship lecturer. He was most associated, however, with South Georgia, which he first visited in 1964 as part of a British Antarctic Survey expedition studying albatrosses and seals. Many years later he was made a Director and Curator of the South Georgia Museum, which he had helped to create. In recognition of his outstanding contributions in this region, Robert was awarded the Polar Medal in 1996 and the South Georgia Association Morag Husband Campbell Medal in 2018. He has a cove on Bird Island and a glacier on Elephant Island named after him. In addition, he was an expert on Sir Ernest Shackleton. Robert also wrote numerous popular books on wildlife, often with his father, and sometimes illustrated with photographs by his sister Jane – a real family affair. British Wildlife readers may recall several wonderful books which he wrote for The Society of Wildlife Artists, as well as a highly successful guide for the RSPB on garden birds.
A true naturalist and professional, when he became more restricted he continued to write about his garden wildlife, his last column for British Wildlife noting his ‘life bedwatch list’ and the comings and goings across his lawn observed from his ground-floor bedroom. In an era of ‘tweets’ and quick comment on social media, the skill and considerable thought that Robert put into each of his submissions stand as a lasting tribute that is part of a long tradition of great natural-history writing in Britain.