King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

WH Hudson

Coloured illustration of a woodpecker seated on a mound, with its wings partially outstretched.The pampas woodpecker.One avid reader of Darwin's On the origin of species was a young Argentine naturalist, William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). His detailed knowledge of the ornithology of his homeland enabled him in 1870 to correct Darwin on a point of detail relating to the pampas woodpecker.

The son of a New England couple who had settled in rural Argentina to farm, Hudson enjoyed a boyhood of wild freedom on his parents' ranch, riding over the pampas alone or with gaucho companions. From childhood he was captivated by the region's bird life, a subject on which he was later regarded as a leading authority. Hudson received little formal education, but he read voraciously and in 1874 he left Argentina for England, the country he felt to be his literary and spiritual home.

Among the reasons for his self-imposed exile from Argentina was his distress at the depredations being wrought on the country's bird life by recent immigrants from Italy, feathered game being a popular element in Italian cuisine. Hudson spent the rest of his life in England, becoming one of the finest writers on natural history and rural life in the English language.

Many of Hudson's works chronicle the English rural scene: Hampshire days (1903), Afoot in England (1909), and A shepherd's life (1910) all describe the human, plant and animal life of the English countryside. But Hudson never forgot the land of his birth, and South America is the focus not only of a number of studies of its natural history but also of much of his fictional output. His novels include Green mansions (1904), set in Venezuela, and The purple land (also 1904), whose action takes place in 19th century Uruguay.

The book on display, published two years before his death, is a reworking of one of his first publications, Argentine ornithology (1888-9) and represents a return to his first love, the bird life of the Argentine pampas. In his preface he wonders if his decision of 1874 to leave Argentina for a writer's life in England had in fact been the right one to take:

Now after so long a time the pang returns, and when I think of that land so rich in bird life ... the reflection is forced on me that, after all, I probably made choice of the wrong road of the two then open to me.

The plate on display shows the pampas woodpecker.

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