Made in North Yorkshire: Kearton Brothers

Our third Great North Yorkshire Son or Daughter come in a pair, and are brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton. The brothers were born in the tiny Swaledale village of Thwaite and went on to become global pioneers of early wildlife photography.

Richard Kearton was the elder brother, born on 2nd January 1862, and Cherry was born on 8th July 1871, they had another brother, Foster (Jack) and two sisters, Jane and Margaret.

PR/MUK 1/14 Baptism of Richard Kearton, 28th January 1862
PR/MUK 1/14 Baptism of Cherry Kearton, 28th September 1871

An inspiring landscape

The brothers came from humble roots; they were brought up in relative poverty, at a time when the Swaledale lead mines were in decline. Day-to-day life, as well as the surrounding landscape could be harsh, but also offered great opportunity for inspiration and adventure. The brothers’ father, John (known as Jack) Kearton taught them where to find birds’ nests, and how to identify different bird songs. Their grandfather, Cherry, was a keen fisherman, and would take both boys out to teach them how to fish. The brothers spent their childhood surrounded by people with a shared passion for the natural world.

We spoke to Helen Guy, trustee of the Keld Resource Centre, to find out more about the Kearton brothers, and why they are Great North Yorkshire Sons.

Whilst in Thwaite, Richard and Cherry lived at Corner House with their family. This has been remembered as the childhood home of the Kearton brothers with engravings surrounding the front door, including animals and the brothers’ initials and years of birth.

The engravings on Corner House, the childhood home of the Kearton brothers in Thwaite. It shows Richard Kearton’s initials and year of birth on the left of the door, and Cherry Kearton’s initials and year of birth on the right of the door. Above the doorframe is engravings of animals, to show the brother’s lifelong dedication to exploring wildlife.

Overcoming hardship

When Richard was seven years old, he suffered a serious accident whilst climbing a tree trying to view a birds’ nest. He severely damaged his hip in the process and was taken to a bone-setter at an inn. The bone-setter was drunk whilst operating on Richard, and two other drunk men had to hold Richard down during the operation due to a lack of anaesthetic. This affected Richard for the rest of his life, as he was left with one leg shorter than the other and a slight limp. Despite the lifelong injuries that Richard had suffered, he nonetheless pursued a physically demanding career in farming.

School days

Richard and Cherry both went to school in Muker, (which is now an art gallery and craft centre). Their attendance at the school is commemorated with a plaque for each of them outside the old school house. The school log books for Muker, record the dates when the plaques were erected.

Richard’s plaque was commissioned after his death in 1928, and the log book shows his plaque was officially opened on 25 June 1929. It reads:

‘This tablet was erected by public subscription in memory of Richard Kearton F.Z.S [Fellow of the Zoology Society] Naturalist, author and lecturer born 2nd Jan 1862 died 8th Feb 1928. He was educated at this school.’

Similarly, Cherry’s plaque was commissioned after his death in 1940. His plaque was officially opened on 27th September 1943, with his widow, Ada Forrest, present at the unveiling. It reads:

‘In memory of Cherry Kearton naturalist, author and explorer. Pioneer of wildlife photography July 1871- Sept 1940. Educated at this school’.

There are also accounts in the log book of the brothers’ visits back to the school upon their return to the Dales. The Muker school log book shows that Richard Kearton visited the school in June 1926, when he ‘gave a short address to the boys and girls’.

S/MUK 1/2 Entry dated 28th June 1926 in the Muker school log book

It also shows that in September 1934, Cherry Kearton visited the school ‘to take photos of the children leaving school as an illustration to a book he is writing’.

S/MUK 1/3 Entry dated 14th September 1934 in the Muker school log book

The brothers’ visits back to the Dales later in life shows the connection and fondness they must have had to the area.

Wildlife photography pioneers

The brothers always pushed themselves and the limits of the photographic technology available at the time. To achieve many of the wildlife photographs that they captured, they created natural hides where they could sit and wait for birds and other animals to return to their habitats whilst in disguise. Their hides included an artificial ox, which they constructed with the help of a taxidermist and covered in ox skin. The brothers would crouch inside the ox, and position the camera on top of a wooden frame inside and wait patiently for the right shot.

As a result of their innovative techniques, in 1892, the brothers became the first to take a photograph of a birds’ nest with eggs inside (see picture below). The brothers had to overcome many physical obstacles to capture the shots they did. This included climbing sheer cliffs and waiting patiently for hours inside often claustrophobic conditions, without moving for hours. They were utterly committed to getting the perfect shot, no matter the risk.

The brothers cemented their partnership through the publication of several books together, Richard would write the content, and Cherry would take the photographs. In 1895, the brothers published their first ground-breaking book entitled ‘British Birds’ Nests How, Where and When to Find and Identify Them’. It was seen as revolutionary at the time as it was the first nature book illustrated throughout with photographs. Their passion for wildlife photography was so apparent, that it is thought to have inspired a young Sir David Attenborough to pursue a career in wildlife film and photography! Both brothers were determined to learn as much as they could about nature through practical research.

As Richard Kearton himself wrote in his book entitled ‘Wild Nature’s Ways’ (1909):

‘To learn to appreciate the beauties of the world in which we live is a great victory. It establishes within us a never-failing source of pleasure, and enhances the value of existence a thousand fold.’

Explorers and conservationists

Throughout his life Cherry travelled across the world taking photographs and filming, whilst Richard was more home based due to his injuries. In 1909 Cherry Kearton’s travels took him on tour around Africa with President Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he built a close friendship. Whilst in Africa, Cherry took the first and perhaps the only photograph of a Masai tribe hunting, he also took photographs of lions and zebras in their natural environment.

Both Cherry and Richard Kearton have been described as conservationists and ahead of their time, as through their photography they wanted to promote the idea of seeing animals alive, rather than hunting to kill as was popular at the time.

Cherry Kearton is also noted for filming the first aerial view over London on 4 May 1908, when he joined the Spencer brothers in their flight over the capital, narrowly escaping severe injury when the engine broke down mid-flight!

We would like to thank the members of the public and the Keld Resource Centre for sharing their knowledge and stories of the Kearton brothers with us.

Further information

If you are interested in finding out more about the Kearton brothers, the Keld Resource Centre has a photographic archive on their website, and a transcript of Helen Guy’s lecture notes, entitled ‘Legacy of the Kearton brothers’.

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford hold a camera once owned by Cherry and Richard Kearton, and further information relating to the brothers’ impact upon photography.

Many of Richard Kearton’s own publications have been digitised and are available to view online, including his above quoted book, ‘Wild Nature’s Ways’.

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