Robert Bateman turns 90 today, and it will be a day like any other. He will wake up at 6:45 a.m., turn on CBC Radio and look out the window at the birds brunching at the feeders while he enjoys breakfast in bed (four scoops of yogurt, seeds and fruit, in case you were wondering). He will then reach for the binoculars his wife, photographer Birgit Freybe Bateman, tossed in the middle of their bed and see if there’s anything of interest in or around Ford Lake, which his Saltspring Island, B.C., property overlooks. By 10 a.m., he’ll be at his easel.
“Every day is the same as every other day,” he says from his studio the week before his birthday. “I virtually never get bored.”
How could he? The iconic Canadian artist and naturalist has five to 10 paintings on the go and a long list of requests. Every year, he does between 10 and 15 major works, adding to the approximately 700 he’s completed in his career. He’s a member of nearly 50 naturalist clubs and conservation organizations and has been bestowed umpteen honours, including more than a dozen honorary doctorates. He donates his artwork and limited edition prints for fundraising efforts that have provided millions of dollars for environmental and social causes over the decades. The Bateman Foundation, a non-profit that connects people to nature through art, operates the Gallery of Nature, a permanent home for the artist’s work in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The foundation also runs several programs and events in which Bateman is involved. Retiring has never crossed his mind.
“I don’t know of any creative people that retire because their life is their art. It sounds a bit simplified, but that’s it,” he says as he sits at his easel, the morning light pouring in through the high windows of the cathedral-ceiling studio that was purpose built for him and Birgit. “My default position is to be sitting here with a brush in my hand.”
Today, that brush is painting a scene in Biddulph, a town in Staffordshire, England. It’s twilight, and a barn owl is cruising past a crumbling stone wall — all that’s left of a Catholic home that was pummelled with cannonballs during the English Civil War. The story behind the painting is perhaps as evocative as the work itself.
Several years ago, Bateman’s assistant, Kate Brotchie, was searching online for references to Bateman and came across a book entitled The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: The Secret Life and Loves of Robert Bateman, published in 2014. The book traces author and house restorer Nigel Daly’s attempts to uncover information about the scandalous life of Victorian artist Robert Bateman, who lived on Daly’s property. Birgit ordered her husband the book as a gift, and he devoured it. Today’s Robert Bateman had been aware of yesterday’s Robert Bateman and had even seen one of his pieces — a dead knight in a meadow at dusk with his faithful dog lying at his head — but had filed it away in the back of his mind.
“In the book, there’s a paragraph where Nigel Daly says they searched high and low for anything about this Robert Bateman, even to the furthest reaches of the internet, and they kept coming up with this irrelevant Canadian artist of the same name,” Bateman says with a laugh. “I read the book and enjoyed it so much, I wrote a fan letter to Nigel Daly: ‘I am the irrelevant Canadian artist and I absolutely loved your book. Could we come and visit sometime?’ So, we did, and that’s the setting of this painting.”
The painting, entitled Barn Owl at Biddulph Old Hall, is destined for the Birds in Art exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, an annual showing of the world’s foremost avian artists. Even prior to the pandemic, Bateman was planning to skip this year’s gathering but send a piece.
“I like to show the flag and show that I’m still alive and support the cause,” he says. “I also like to do it for the stimulation of doing something that is fresh and perhaps surprising — something other than a commission. I particularly like the way this one is going, so I’ll be happy to share it.”
If Bateman reaches an impasse on the barn owl painting today, he will likely move on to one of his other “front-burner” pieces. Perhaps the painting of 100 sandhill cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska or the scene of the winding Li River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in China, with a fisherman in a dugout boat using a captive cormorant with a ring around its throat to catch fish, a practice that continues today.
He might glance at that long list of requests — a raven or a warbler, a crane sketch, a downy woodpecker, a pair of evening grosbeaks, a bald eagle’s nest with two bald eagles coming into it, a raccoon, a rabbit — and smile at the Leonard Cohen quote he jotted down while listening to the radio, albeit slightly inaccurately: “I’ve dealt a lot in various religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
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Bateman always has several pieces on the go so he can pivot when artist’s block hits.
“I think of the muse up on top of Mount Olympus in Greece. She decides, ‘Well, Bateman’s been tortured enough. I guess I’ll reach out and touch him with my finger and give him a thought that he can carry on.’ Then the thought comes to me and I carry on for a while, and then kind of get stuck in the snow like I used to do in Ontario, so I start another painting.”
If the muse doesn’t reach out, he will likely stare out his window at the blooming heritage apple trees in hopes of a visitor showing up at one of his bird feeders to distract him, which, in fact, has just happened.
“A very rare and drab little bird has just arrived on the scene,” he says. “It’s a tit. I’ve only ever seen them once or twice in my life before this year. It’s a little grey job, a bit bigger than a wren.”
Bateman has been birdwatching since he was a teenager and welcomes the news that more people are trying it out during the pandemic. “If people change their behaviour and actually get out in nature and go for a walk in a park and go and sit in the harbour and look at the ocean, I think that that will make them better when this is all over,” he says, adding that he and Birgit get out for a hike on their property every day after lunch. “Just take some deep breaths — your cells rejoice.”
While he’s strolling through the bucolic land that surrounds his property, he’s taking note of the species he sees — and doesn’t see. “What I do myself and recommend other people do is get to know your neighbours of other species, and particularly get to know their names,” he says. “I think it’s insulting to say, ‘I love birds, they’re so sweet and cute, but I don’t want to know their names. It’s sort of like being a teacher and saying, ‘I love young people, but I don’t want to know their names.’ It’s superficial and it’s not engaging.”
Learning species’ names leads us down the path of learning more about them, Bateman says, and noticing troubling changes. “You can say to yourself, ‘How come I haven’t been seeing any fox sparrows for the last two years? What’s going on? Is there something going on in British Columbia or is there something going on where they migrate? And is it something I could get involved with by helping with a conservation cause?’ ”
That spirit of getting involved and helping out is another promising sign Bateman has seen in the wake of the pandemic. “There are thousands and thousands of inspiring examples of people tackling tough jobs and going in to help people and make the world a better place,” Bateman says, adding that we can do the same for nature.
The pandemic has postponed the birthday bash Bateman had planned with his family, which includes five children and 10 grandchildren, but he’s hoping to reschedule for the fall. “I’ve got to keep living and keep upright at least until that happens,” he jokes.
So, tonight will be a quiet one with his wife. “Birgit is one to make things special for occasions, so I’m not sure if we’ll have shrimp or crab or something more exotic.”
“You asked for roast chicken,” she calls from the other room.
Roast chicken it is. Followed by strawberry shortcake, one of Bateman’s favourite treats (with whipped cream and a couple of scoops of ice cream, in case you were wondering).
After digesting over a British crime drama, it’s back to the studio until 10 p.m., just like any other evening. “I have a routine and I really like routine because I feel like I accomplish more.”
And for 90-year-old Robert Bateman, there’s still much to accomplish.
The new nonagenarian laughs when asked his secrets to a long, healthy, meaningful life before sharing this: “Find a piece of nature — could be a tree, could even be a dandelion — take a deep breath, smile and say thank you.”
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