NATURALIST & WILDLIFE ILLUSTRATOR
Compiled and written by Ron Candy, former Director/Curator
Greater Vernon Museum and Archives
Allan Brooks was born at Etawah, northern India, on February 16th, 1869. Allan’s father, William Edwin Brooks, was a civil engineer and amateur ornithologist. While stationed in India with the East Indian Railroad, William Brooks studied bird life with a passion and spent much of his spare time collecting bird specimens for the British Museum. William Brooks was good friends with Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), a civil servant in British India and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, a political party that was later to prove instrumental in the Indian independence movement. Hume, like William Brooks, was an amateur ornithologist and was once referred to as “the Father of Indian Ornithology.” William Brooks named his son Allan after Hume.
William Brooks had hoped one of his sons (there were three boys and two girls in the family) would become an ornithologist and Allan showed promise in this field early in his childhood. At the age of only two Allan often handled his father’s bird specimens and was considered then to have a born talent for being a naturalist.
In 1873, Allan was sent to England where he spent the next eight years living with his grandmother and maiden aunt while attending school in Northumberland.
A special friend of William Brooks, John Hancock (1808-1890), “considered to be the father of modern taxidermy,” spent a lot of time with Allan and taught him about butterfly collecting, botany, and basic taxidermy. It was said that Allan considered such things as board games or sports a waste of time and he preferred taking walks in the moors and observing wildlife.
In 1881, William Brooks retired from his work in India. Although he was still a young man, William’s wife, Mary, was in poor health and it was recommended that she be taken to Canada where she could live in a healthier environment. Wanting only the best for his wife, William packed up his entire family and sailed for eastern Canada. Sadly, shortly after their arrival in Quebec, Mary Brooks passed away. She was only 44 years of age.
Mary Brooks was buried in Quebec. William then moved on to Milton, Ontario, where he attempted to make a home for himself and his children on a 200-acre farm.
William Brooks continued with his studies in ornithology and, over the ensuing years, many leading naturalists, ornithologists, and taxidermists in the region and from Europe came to visit, and sometimes stay for extended periods at the Brooks’ farm. During these years, Allan spent much of his time preparing bird skins, sketching, reading numerous books on bird identification, and accompanying his father and visitors on field trips.
In 1887, William Brooks once again moved his family to a new location. This time, they settled on a farm near Chilliwack in British Columbia. Allan Brooks, who was now 18 years of age, had an entirely new region to explore. New species of birds and wildlife were available for the young ornithologist and his sketching and knowledge of birds and wildlife continue to grow.
In 1891, William Brooks and Allan’s siblings returned to Ontario. Allan stayed on in British Columbia for a year before following. For three years, Allan farmed on the Brooks’ Ontario homestead and pursued his study of birds in his spare time. However, farming wasn’t for him and by 1894 Allan Brooks, along with his brother Ted, returned to the Chilliwack area where he began what friend, Hamilton Laing, was to later write, “a stern apprenticeship to his life work.”
From 1894 to 1896, Allan Brooks was collecting small bird and mammal specimens from the Chilliwack area and sent them to ornithologists and natural history museums in eastern Canada and the United States. William Brewster, Outram Bangs, and Gerrit Miller were three of the more famous ornithologists Brooks was dealing with at the time. The prices Brooks received for his specimens were extremely low by today’s standards. According to some of his original sales slips, Brooks was receiving .25 to .30 cents each for small mammals and birds. In one instance, he sold a porcupine to Outram Bangs at Harvard University for $3.00. Another entry reveals that Brooks received $1.00 from John Fannin at the Provincial Museum in Victoria for a Coyote.
Allan Brooks made his way to the Okanagan Valley in the late spring of 1897. He actually wrote to his father complaining about the heat.
In 1897, Brooks was contributing sketches and articles to the journal known as “Recreation.” In a letter to his father in 1898 he writes, “…I have an article or two in it every month for which I get $6.00 a month.”
In 1899, a short penciled note in one of Brooks’ diaries reads…”Left for Ontario February 10th. Returned April 8th.” Although he doesn’t mention it, this date records the time of his father’s death.
In the summer of 1900 Brooks left the Fraser Valley and traveled north to the Cariboo region. He reached Barkerville on July 20th and by the fall was collecting specimens around Quesnel and Cottonwood. He then teamed up with his friend Sidney Williams, a surveyor, and the two of them set up in a cabin six miles north of Cottonwood and trapped during the early fall. Williams left for Quesnel at the end of October and Brooks stayed behind to continue trapping.
Brooks and Williams had first met sometime in 1897 or early 1888 shortly after the Brooks family had settled in the province. A year after their arrival, in 1888, Brooks began working on an illustrated manuscript, a field guide essentially, on British Columbia birds; the first of its kind ever to be written. Brooks finished the 131-page guide in 1889. Along with descriptive notes, the guide also included 173 original hand drawn illustrations. Brooks then gave the guide to Williams for his personal use. The guide remained in the Williams family from 1889 until 2007 when it was purchased from the original owner’s grandson by the Vernon Museum.
Brooks left the Cariboo in the fall of 1901 and headed south to Okanagan Landing where he met up with his brother, Ted. Brooks then purchased a small boat and the two of them made their way to Penticton and wintered there. In spring, the brothers returned to Okanagan Landing. It was a significant trip in Brooks’ life and one that would prompt him to consider where he wanted to permanently live.
In the spring of 1902, Brooks began collecting fleas for the British Museum. One species of flea, which he took from a weasel, was given the scientific name Nearctopsylla Brooksi. Brooks was paid six pence per specimen and was credited for discovering at least fifteen new species of flea.
During 1903 and through to 1904, Brooks traveled back down to the Fraser Valley. From there he ventured over to Vancouver Island and up to Campbell River and Comox observing and sketching birds along the way. He spent the winter in Comox and in spring wound his way through the Gulf Islands, eventually landing in Victoria. However, by 1905 he was back in Okanagan Landing where he purchased an acre of land and proceeded to build himself a home. In time, Brooks’ small acre also became a sanctuary and nesting site for over 34 species of small birds.
A note in Brooks’ diary for 1906 reads, “Sketches wanted by W.L. Dawson. Coloured at $5.00 each; black and white at $2.00.” William Leon Dawson was born in Leon, Illinois in 1873. By 1896, Dawson was living in the state of Washington where he took a job as a missionary and Sunday school teacher in a sparsely populated area known as Okanogan County. Dawson had a deep interest in birds at this time and during his travels as a missionary he gathered information on 145 species of birds, information that he later used to compile his “Preliminary List of the Birds of Okanogan County, Washington.”
In 1897, Dawson moved to Oberlin, Ohio where he studied both zoology and theology. A short time later, his list of Washington birds was published in “The Auk,” a scholarly journal of the American Ornithologist’s Union. In 1899, Dawson was ordained as a Congregationalist minister and accepted a rural church position in Yakima County, Washington. A year later, he became a pastor of a large church in Columbus, Ohio. However, overwork led Dawson to a nervous breakdown in 1902 and he then decided to leave the ministry and devote his life to ornithology. In 1902, Dawson published “The Birds of Ohio.” In 1905, Dawson moved back to Washington where he, wildlife artist Allan Brooks, and ornithologist John Hopper Bowles founded the Occidental Publishing Company. A year later, Dawson commissioned Brooks to do the illustrations for “The Birds of Washington.” The commission, which consisted of fifty-two species of birds to be illustrated, was Brooks’ first big break as a wildlife illustrator. The two-volume set was published in 1909.
During 1908/09, Brooks was again traveling to observe, sketch, and collect birds. He ventured to the coast and visited Vancouver Island and Victoria. He also went to the Seattle area and then on to Alberta to visit the regions around Edmonton and Calgary.
He returned to the Okanagan on November 20th, 1909 and wrote, “Home today. Beautiful day; no snow south of Vernon except on the mountains.” Brooks did a bird census every December. His 1909 count included 24 species and 473 individual counts.
In 1910, Brooks once again heard from his friend Leon Dawson. Dawson, who was now living in California, was preparing another book. It was a much bigger undertaking than “The Birds of Washington” and he wanted Brooks to do the illustrations. Brooks accepted the commission and during the winter of 1910/11 he took a six-week trip to California to work on the illustrations for “The Birds of California.” He returned in March of 1911 after having met with nearly every birdman and biologist in the state.
The four volume set, “Birds of California,” was published in 1923 and contains extensive text on 580 species of birds. Brooks contributed 48 full-colour drawings for the books along with 44 black and white sketches.
Allan Brooks had always been an excellent marksman and in July of 1911, Brooks went to Vancouver for ten days to compete in the British Columbia Rifle Association matches. The following month he went to Kamloops to compete in rifle matches there and to Armstrong in September for further matches.
During 1912/13, Brooks devoted a lot of his time to the local rifle ranges. During this time, he traveled to Vancouver to compete in an international rifle match then on to compete in matches held in Toronto.
An entry in Brooks’ diary for June 1914 simply reads, “Left for England via Montreal, leaving the latter place on the 21st with the Canadian Rifle Team.” Brooks was off to Bisley and the rifle matches taking place there.
War broke out while Brooks was at Bisley. After the matches he attempted to enlist in a Scottish regiment where it was discovered that he already held an officer’s commission in the Canadian Militia (Lieutenant in the Rocky Mountain Rangers out of Armstrong). He was then sent back to Canada and the training camp of the 1st Canadian contingent at Valcartier, Quebec.
In the fall of 1914, at the age of 45, Lieutenant Brooks was off to England and the war in Europe. Upon his arrival in France he was promoted to Captain and a month later reached the level of Major in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Brooks’ primary role in World War I was that of a sniper. His skills were such that he was mentioned in three dispatches and received the Distinguished Service Order.
Brooks suffered some hearing loss while fighting and was eventually pulled from the trenches and put to the job of giving instructional courses on the rifle and sniping.
During his time overseas, Brooks continued to observe and sketch wildlife even from the trenches. He sent many renderings to his friend Percy Taverner whom he corresponded with regularly.
Brooks arrived back at Okanagan Landing on April 15th, 1919. He quickly picked up where he left off five years previous and began observing and sketching birds. The war changed him some and Brooks no longer desired to attend rifle matches or hunt big game. Instead, he devoted himself entirely to ornithology.
Brooks spent the winter of 1919/20 in Comox with Cyril Piercy, Postmaster at Comox, and set up a temporary studio above the post office. Brooks conducted a Christmas bird count at Comox and recorded 56 species and 7,156 individual sightings. Later, in the spring, Brooks traveled up the coast to Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Brooks was off to eastern Canada in the fall of 1920 to visit his friend, Percy Taverner, at the National Museum in Ottawa. From Ottawa he went on to New York to meet with American artist and naturalist, Louis A. Fuertes. Fuertes was a world leader in his field and one of the America’s best bird and mammal illustrators.
Brooks notes in his journal a series of 42 full pictures for Dr. John Phillips and his book “A Natural History of Ducks.” Other notes include illustrations for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, the Audubon Society; thirty small pictures for the Geological Survey of Canada for use in Percy Taverner’s “Birds of Western Canada” as well as work for several other patrons.
Brooks was a traveler in every respect and it was during these trips that he took copious notes and made sketches of bird life; sketches that he would later take back to his studio at Okanagan Landing as a reference for his finished works.
In the spring of 1924 Brooks and Harry Swarth (Curator of Birds at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley) traveled up the B.C. coast on the C.P.R. boat “Princess Royal” stopping off in Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Wrangel, Juneau, and eventually Skagway. From Skagway they took the White Pass and Yukon Railway to Carcross then on to Atlin by boat. The trip lasted several months and led to the naming of a new subspecies called the “Timberline Sparrow.”
On April 8th 1926, Allan Brooks married 38-year old Marjorie Holmes of Arundel, England. An outdoors person and avid gardener, Marjorie created a splendid garden of colours at their home in Okanagan Landing. She maintained that the flowers attracted hummingbirds. One morning she caught her husband crouched in the middle of her flowers with a .410 shotgun across his knees. Brooks explained to Marjorie that he was attempting to collect a much needed hummingbird specimen for his collection. Marjorie lambasted him for using her flowerbed as a hummingbird blind. Brooks surrendered the gun to his wife with the promise that no more collecting would take place on the premises.
Although strongly debated today among ornithologists, conservationists and naturalists, for centuries it was an accepted practice for ornithologists to actively collect and preserve actual bird specimens or “skins” for study. Brooks was no exception to this approach. He possessed a remarkable collection of bird skins that now reside at the University of California at Berkeley.
Allan and Marjorie Brooks announced the birth of a son, Allan Cecil Brooks Jr., on January 2nd, 1927. At the time of his son’s birth, Allan Brooks Sr. was a month shy of his 57th birthday.
In July of 1928, Brooks and Marjorie traveled to Comox and spent the summer with long time friend and naturalist, Hamilton Lang (1883-1982). It was a notable period in time because the couple began building their summer home in Comox close to where Brooks had spent his first winter in 1919/20.
Another distinguished acquaintance in Brooks professional life was Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929). Forbush was a noted American naturalist and ornithologist. In 1893, he was appointed Ornithologist to the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture and in 1908 became the Massachusetts State Ornithologist. His noted work was a three-volume set of books titled, “Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States.” Initially, Forbush commissioned renowned American wildlife illustrator and close friend to Allan Brooks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), to supply the images for the books. Volume one of the set was published in 1925 followed by volume two in 1927. However, a tragic automobile accident prevented Fuertes from completing volume three. Forbush then contacted Allan Brooks to finish the commission. Brooks ended up supplying Forbush with 130 drawings. Volume three was finally published in 1929. That same year, Forbush himself passed away.
In 1931, Brooks traveled to Washington to meet with Gilbert Grosvenor, editor of the National Geographic Magazine to discuss illustrations for an upcoming issue. This visit actually marked the beginning of a series of illustrations that would be included in 20 issues.
In November of 1931, Brooks, Marjorie, and Allan Jr. boarded the “S.S. Niagara” at Vancouver and sailed to New Zealand to spend the winter near Allan’s sister, Edith Swan, in Aukland. They stopped off in Hawaii and Australia and Brooks made several comments in his diary about the bird-life he had sighted. Naturally, upon arrival in New Zealand, their first stop was the natural history museum in Aukland.
In 1933, Brooks was prowling around New Mexico and California and in 1934 was making his way up the B.C. coast to Prince Rupert, Terrace, and through to Jasper. According to Hamilton Laing, Brooks found it hard not to conduct at least one field trip a year. Consequently, Brooks was constantly on the move collecting, sketching, and observing. It was in 1934 that Brooks contributed 35 illustrations to Percy Taverner’s book, “Birds of Canada.”
In November of 1934, the Brooks family boarded the “M.S. Aorangi” to begin an around the world bird watching and sketching tour. Brooks’ field notes during this tour are extensive and his paintings depicting the sea are exquisite.
The Brooks family returned to Canada from their world tour in May of 1935. Their first stop was Washington to consult with the National Geographic Magazine on an upcoming issue. From there they went on to Toronto to visit the Royal Ontario Museum.
Brooks contributed a number of illustrations for John May’s “Hawks of North America” in 1935. However, what is interesting about this commission is that Brooks initially supplied several illustrations with hawks and their commonest forms of prey. John May, wanting to keep his book free of any death scenes, returned the paintings to Brooks with a note that read, “Paint out the prey…No hawk is to be shown with victims.” Brooks grudgingly obliged.
Early in 1936, after being home for only a brief period, Marjorie and her husband were off again to California while Allan Jr. attended the Vernon Preparatory School. By summer, Brooks was in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
From 1937 to November of 1938 Brooks stayed closer to home and hiked around the South Okanagan, Similkameen and Nicola regions. However, by December of 1938, the family was once again bound for California. As usual, they stayed with friends in Berkeley then traveled out to the various collecting grounds to observe and sketch.
Father and son ran a bit of a trap-line at Morro Bay while they were in California. One morning, Allan senior noted, “Went to the south end of the bay to look at the traps set yesterday. Only one Kangaroo Rat…A Burrowing Owl had robbed all the others. A clear case of the early bird and the worm.”
By 1939 Allan Jr. was becoming a mammalogist in his own right. He had his own collections and, according to Hamilton Laing, “It seemed his father was steering him into this branch of biology rather than pure ornithology.”
Allan Brooks was 70 when war broke out in Europe in 1939. Naturally, the conflict put an end to some of his traveling plans abroad.
In May of 1943, Brooks went to Keremeos by bus to study the Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel. He collected some notes on the squirrel and he had a peculiar encounter with a badger. Hamilton Laing recorded the incident and says, “A big badger was crossing the road with a groundhog crosswise in its mouth. The bus stopped while the badger crossed the road and proceeded to climb a bank. Partway up the bank the badger dropped the groundhog and it rolled back down the bank. At this point, Brooks leaped from the bus and grabbed the badger’s intended lunch. Brooks and badger, only ten feet apart, had a bit of a staring off match.”
In 1945, Brooks visited Oliver Wells at Edenbank near Sumas in the Fraser Valley. Wells was a naturalist, and collector of Brooks paintings. When Brooks stepped off the bus Oliver Wells recorded the following account…“At noon, February 14th, 1945, I met Allan Brooks as he stepped from the Pacific Stage at the Cottonwoods Corner. It was one of the happiest moments in my life to have the honor of meeting one of the country’s most famous naturalists and bringing him to Edenbank as our guest. Major Brooks stepped from the stage in a manner to belie the fact he was in his 76th year. His strong erect carriage and his firm handshake made one forget that it was over fifty years since, as a young man, he had tramped the forests of the valley, haunted the Sumas Prairie, and climbed the mountains in search of new specimens for the collections of leading museums around the world.”
At least four major museums offered jobs to Brooks in his early years including the Provincial Museum in Victoria. He turned them all down. He was a free-lancer and a steady job would have driven him mad.
His bird skins and collections were on a scale of any major museum and they served as his library for reference to his illustrative work. Brooks paid attention to every detail and was very fastidious. He insisted labels should carry all pertinent information on the specimen and went so far as to publish a paper on the importance of these details.
In the field, Brooks usually wore knickerbockers along with game pockets strapped around his middle with wide straps slung over his shoulders. He also packed binoculars around his neck and sometimes a telescope. Hamilton Laing said Brooks brought an air of dignity while collecting his bird specimens and “He tramped about the Commonage with the stiff backed plodding gait of an old country gentleman.” Interestingly, despite all his traveling, Brooks never drove a car.
Hamilton Laing writes that Brooks was generous with his time and often instructed young naturalists when they came to visit him in his studio. He was in the habit of giving away his paintings as gifts to friends at Christmas, or as tokens of appreciation.
On the night of the Annual Banquet of the American Ornithologist’s Union in Ottawa in 1926 Brooks was at the head of the table about to receive a gold medal award for his bird paintings. He had just listened to a long oration of himself by friend and poet, Wallace Havelock Robb. Brooks was never one for speeches and, upon introduction by Robb, rose from his chair, took the medal from Robb’s hand, stuffed it in his pocket and said, “Not Guilty!” and promptly sat down.
Brooks and Marjorie came down to Comox from Okanagan Landing for the winter of 1945/46. Brooks immediately began scouring the beaches for bird-life but he knew his health was failing. His notes in his journal are still detailed and accurate as ever during this time and he continues to paint and sketch. Hamilton Laing recorded, “When I visited him in his little studio a few days before Christmas, he was busily plying his brush, a commission of three paintings for the State University of Washington. A dozen fresh skins of waders and waterfowl were at hand on the drying tray. He was ill but made light of it. Next day he finished his last painting, a big cock Interior Blue Grouse with a hen in their native Okanagan setting with Terrace Mountain, oft-mentioned in his diaries, in the background. Then he went to Comox Hospital. To show how closely he lived to his work, when on his way in the driveway he suddenly remembered his neglect in signing his Blue Grouse study, so he halted the taxi and returned. Could he have had a premonition of the importance of this, his last signature?”
Allan Brooks passed away on January 3rd, 1946.
- Ali, S. Bird study in India: Its history and its importance, Azad Memorial Lecture for 1978. Indian Council for Cultural Relations. New Delhi.
- Brooks, Marjorie. Allan Brooks – A Biography, The Condor, Vol. XL, January – February, 1938, 12-17.
- Laing, Hamilton. Allan Brooks, 1869 – 1946, The Auk, Vol. 64, July, 1947, 430-444.
- Laing, Hamilton. Allan Brooks, Artist Naturalist, British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1979.
- Wells, Oliver N. Major Allan Brooks, D.S.O., Canadian Nature Magazine, May-June, 1946, 104.
- Greater Vernon Museum & Archives. Allan Brooks Fonds, MS 247.