Amateur Natural History Films

Image: W. H. George, The Cinema in School (1935)

Natural history has long carried an association with the word “amateur”. As a kind of ‘all-rounder’ science, natural history gained a ‘mass’ following in the nineteenth century, precisely when science began to attain a “professional” status. But distinguishing between amateur and professional is often a tricky business, and both categories have shifted significantly in definition over the years.

Natural history was founded largely on the observation of natural phenomena “in the field” and the collection of specimens. Therefore, naturalists stood much to gain from the use of new visual technologies like photography and film at the turn of the century. For instance, cameras offered new ways of viewing and cataloguing animals, plants and other features of the natural world. As other parts of this website show, research scientists, educators and entertainers used film and photography to different ends, in turn shaping the nature films that we know today.

Natural history’s “amateur” qualities blended well with film and photography, both of which had a mass following of amateur practitioners in the first half of the twentieth century. As cameras became more compact and affordable, photography developed into a key middle-class hobby, with dozens of amateur magazines dedicated to sharing tips on techniques and equipment, and clubs cropping up all around the country for people to share their images. As well as offering a new visual medium through which to practice natural history, films and photography also played an important role in recruiting and engaging a wider public into taking an interest in the natural world.

Many of the earliest pioneers in natural history photography and film based their personas on the figure of the “amateur”, even though they were often experts in their field. One of the best exemplars of this was F. Percy Smith, whose stop-motion images of plants in motion and microcinematographic techniques were hallmarks of the Secrets of Nature style. Smith, who achieved considerable fame through his often bewildering and magical films of plants, microbes and fungi, was often pictured in his home in Southgate in north London, surrounded by gadgets, mechanisms and complex structures of his own design. Even some of the most specialised natural history filmmakers, therefore, often liked to see themselves as accomplished amateurs. This would soon change, however: J. V. Durden, who learned many of his techniques as a filmmaker from Percy Smith, described himself as a ciné-biologist, carving a niche for himself in the combination of scientific and practical knowledge about science and film.

F. Percy Smith. Image by Joan Woollcombe, Windsor Magazine (1937)

Why someone as experienced as Smith would wish to see himself as something of an “amateur” had a lot to do with the ways in which formal education, institutional prestige and other factors were becoming increasingly important in defining what counted as “expertise” or “professionalism” in the early twentieth century. But it also reflects how both natural history and photography were developing in tandem, as hobbies or pastimes that involved a degree of technical or practical knowledge, becoming part of what is often termed “rational recreation”.

Although filmmaking was still beyond the reach of most citizens in the first half of the twentieth century, a number of fascinating examples of amateur natural history films survive. Here I have chosen a selection of films from the excellent BFI Player. They were all made in the UK before the year 1950. One of the questions that I am interested in asking is how these films relate to the more popular, widely distributed natural history films represented by the Secrets of Nature series: was it the case that the latter directly influenced the former, or can we imagine a more complex relationship between the two?

Pond Life (1935), by F. P. Barnitt

This is an exceptional amateur film by Frank Perrin Barnitt, a solicitor from Tunbridge Wells. The film shows some of the microscopic creatures that can be found in an “ordinary pond” with the help of a microscope, including Planarian Worm, Daphnia Pulex (water flea), Mayfly larva (spelt “lava” in one of the captions) and Hydra. If this doesn’t shatter the notion of amateur vs expert nature filmmaking, I don’t know what can! The microscopy work in this film is credited to B. Newbery, suggesting that even amateur films like this one were often the result of collaborations amongst hobbyists.

Watch Pond Life (1935) on the BFI Player.

Pond Life (1934), by George Higginson

This award-winning film, made a year earlier by George Higginson, takes the same principle as Barnitt’s, inviting viewers to look beyond the everyday with the help of a microscope. This was a common trope in popular natural history, including the Secrets of Nature film The World in a Glass of Water (1931).

The film shows a man collecting water and algae from a pond using everyday items – a jam jar and a table spoon. In the laboratory, another man selects a sample to be placed on a microscope slide. The fact that the film frequently returns to this figure, explaining in detail how to use the microscope to view different things, is suggestive of the explanatory power of this type of film and the importance of illustrating how Higginson shot the images. The film includes a wide range of microscopic creatures, including free-swimming rotifers, ciliate protozoans and flagellates, Cyclops, a type of ostracod called Cypris, an annelid worm and several insect larval forms, including mayfly and caddis fly.

The voiceover seems to have been added later, as it refers to Higginson’s films in the past tense. The narration is similar in style to educational films of the period, which suggests the film may have had a longer life as a classroom film.

Like Barnitt’s film, the microscope work is credited to another individual, in this case R. J. Slater. Higginson was a student at Manchester School of Art when he made this film, and later went on to teach at Bolton School for Boys.

Watch Pond Life (1934) on the BFI Player.

Nature Parade (1940), by Anthony C. Wilson

Schools were a key site for the production of amateur films, with enterprising and often young teachers using the filmmaking process as a learning opportunity for their pupils. In this film, Anthony C. Wilson’s students at Feltonfleet School in Cobham go on a “nature parade”. The necessary expense that filmmaking would have entailed means that many of the school films that survive today were made at wealthier schools, and the film captures a sense of male confidence and adventure “in the wild” that was prevalent at this time. Parts of the film are a little blurry, but the shots of a snake sliding across the grass – and even towards the camera! – add a fun layer of creativity and even intimacy. Elsewhere in the film we see a number of close-up shots of other animals like squirrels, rabbits and crabs that can’t have been easy to achieve.

Ronald Gow, who later became a well-known playwright, produced a film called The Sundew while he was a teacher at Altrincham Grammar School. Although the film unfortunately does not survive, we do have a couple of stills that were published in a book about cinema in schools. Gow wrote that he was pleased that he made his film about the sundew before the Secrets team made their own film on the topic – something which hints at the influence that these films had on amateur school productions like Gow’s.

Stills from Ronald Gow’s The Sundew. Published in W. H. George, The Cinema in School (1935)

Watch Nature Parade (1940) on the BFI Player.

The Romance of the Swan (1933), by E. C. Le Grice

If this film is about romance, then it’s fair to say that perhaps the director didn’t think much of it. A somewhat slow film, it is nevertheless a touching portrait of the hatching and birth of a swan’s eggs, and the shots of the cygnets swimming in the water at the end are rather beautiful. E. C. Le Grice was a passionate amateur filmmaker, and The Romance of the Swan won a Gold Medal for the best animal film in a competition organised by the magazine Home Movies and Home Talkies in 1933. The film received “practically full marks in every section of the Judging awards”, with the judges praising the difficulty involved in filming cygnets so close up during breeding season, and noting that the photography “was on a very high level throughout”.

A picture of E. C. Le Grice, published in Home Movies and Home Talkies in 1933.

Watch The Romance of the Swan (1933) on the BFI Player.

Purkiss Family Film No. 11 (1930), by the Purkiss Family

The Zoo was one of the most popular and most accessible locations for the general public to make their own nature films. All that was needed was a ciné-camera and a ticket to the gardens. Well, not quite – a photography permit was also required, and it was only in the 1930s that the Zoo began to allow visitors to take films. This family home movie shows characteristic scenes from the interwar London Zoo like the Chimp’s Tea Party or children holding onto the wings penguins and walking alongside them – not something you’d expect to see in most zoos today.

Viewing films about zoo animals in the cinema would have no doubt encouraged more people to want to create their own. Indeed, the Secrets director Mary Field complained that:

Judging by the number of enthusiastic amateurs that you can see any day with 16 mm. and 9 mm. cameras, busily engaged in taking films at the Zoo, you would naturally imagine that the production of a Zoo subject was an easy job for any film director, and that a week spent on production in the Regent Park’s enclosure was in the nature of a holiday expedition. (Field and Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934), p. 48).

Watch Purkiss Family Film No. 11 (1930) on the BFI Player.

Winged Workers (1949), By Betty and Cyril Ramsden

The splash of colour in Betty and Cyril Ramsden’s Winged Workers (1949), might come as a welcome relief after the black-and-white films above. This extraordinary film is composed of a series of shots showing different bees collecting pollen from flowers. It showcases perfectly why Kodachrome was such a popular format amongst amateurs – and might even show a couple of bee species that have since gone extinct. The Ramsdens were keen amateur filmmakers from Leeds, whose films are often seen to be exemplary of postwar middle-class affluence and leisure. But if their nature films are anything to go by, they must have been pretty keen naturalists too.

Watch Winged Workers (1949) on the BFI Player.

You can find more amateur natural history films by visiting the Related Films section of this website.

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