A Tribute to William Pope, Norfolk County’s Naturalist

Naturalist and artist William Pope championed conservation through his paintings and documentations of the birds of Ontario.

I recently took a day trip with a few friends, casually driving the backroads near Lake Erie. Though we were only 40 minutes from my home here in Tillsonburg, we proceeded to have a good half-day adventure. We were specifically interested in exploring a few conservation areas and investigating the hamlets along the way.

Living that close to the lake, we are blessed to be able to experience the solitude of these nature preserves, wander, camp and immerse ourselves in the outdoors. You can also enjoy a day out and return home in good time. Each stop also provided a glimpse into the past; explaining the historic legacy of the people and events that have defined these small communities.

The Long Point region has an essential and enduring history of ecological management. As we were entering the Norfolk Conservation Area, we stopped to read the Ontario historic plaque, commemorating the work of the naturalist William Pope. Though Long Point does have a nude beach, this was not that type of naturalist; we had to correct someone in the car.

William Pope PortraitPortrait: W. E. CANTELON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
William Pope, at approximately 80 years of age.

William Pope was born in Kent, England, in 1811 and came to North America in 1834. He was an avid sportsman and outdoor artist. He travelled across North America but found his calling documenting the flora and fauna throughout the western and southwestern regions of Upper Canada.

He has been called a “sportsman-naturalist,” regarding his history of hunting and studying. He understood the importance of conservation and the documenting of species. In particular, Pope focused on the birds of Ontario. Travelling along the lakeshores and delving into the deep forests, Pope specifically sketched birds in their habitats and noted their behaviours.

In 1917, J. Ross Robertson created an exhibition titled “Ornithological Collection: Water Color Drawings by William Pope.” Robertson was a Canadian Member of Parliament and a philanthropist who had purchased a collection of original Pope paintings. This exhibit introduced Pope to the public and also ensured the promise that the works would be donated to the Toronto Public Library for posterity.

James H. Fleming, an ornithologist, wrote about Pope’s documentations, saying: “To the naturalist they serve as an invaluable record of the fauna of the Lake Erie region at a time when the country was still covered by its original forest. Not only are the birds and animals shown, but the backgrounds often have details that the botanist will find of interest.”

William Pope TanagersPhoto: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Pope’s renderings of a male and female scarlet tanagers (1859).

Robertson had the foresight to protect William Pope’s life work. He regarded them as important pieces for bird studies as well as detailed artwork. It is also interesting to note that Robertson, as per his book, created the exhibition because “he believed that a sympathetic acquaintance with birds and their habits would interest boys and girls and lead to the preservation of this interesting and beautiful part of our life.”

Pope has been compared to American birder and artist, John James Audubon. Like Audubon, his research and art are great in number, artistic skill, and importance to ornithology. His work has also become essential for the public record of environmental conservation and species management.

Pope’s paintings were comprehensive depictions that incorporated both ink and watercolour. They focused on his subjects rather than the landscapes. He created hundreds of images of birds detailing their coloured feathers, beaks and feet, while recording the differing visual features between sexes.

William Pope ResidencePhoto: JASON PANKRATZ
The Pope residence, located west
of Port Ryerse.

William Pope made Norfolk County his permanent home in 1859. In fact, it was not until after I returned home and completed additional research into Pope that I realized his home can be seen from the historical plaque, west of Port Ryerse on Front Road. It is now a private residence. What lucky people!

Pope died in 1902, at 91 years of age. He and his wife Martha are buried in the St. Andrew’s Cemetery in Vittoria, Ont. Interestingly, while I searched for his grave, I could not find a stone with the surname Pope. His resting place is found and documented on the backside of his daughter’s gravestone with her married name, Hewitt.

Today, collectors are willing to spend small fortunes for original works (and prints) by naturalists from the 19th century. Sadly, these types of portfolios are often divided and sold individually rather than full volumes because the seller can attain a greater return. We are fortunate that Robertson saved Pope’s original work as a collection.

Whether recognized for Pope or not, Norfolk County is known for its outdoor spaces and connection to the natural world. A walk through any conservation area will give you a real sense of the natural beauty of the wilderness that Pope explored and in which he worked. There are multiple opportunities to witness the birds that Pope documented. If you are looking to get involved in the preservation of wildlife, the Birds Canada research centre in Port Rowan and the Canadian Raptor Conservancy west of Port Ryerse are excellent non-profit organizations to support.

I encourage you to take a slow drive down the backroads of Norfolk County and get out to stretch your legs when something catches your eye. As you see birds fly overhead, or dart from here to there, remember that they are likely descendants of those William Pope observed and painted nearly 180 years ago.

Next, check out this incredible gallery of bird photography from across Canada.

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Originally Published in Our Canada