Nearly 50 years ago, I recall that we were saddened to read that the man who had written short articles under the heading of Chinese Fact and Fancy for Hong Kong’s Sunday Post-Herald under the pseudonym ‘Pioneer’ had died. I did not think then that I would find myself writing about him now.
|Colonel V.R. Burkhardt DSO, OBE taken about 1945|
from the book jacket of Confessions of Custard
When I began to look into the life and work of Valentine Burkhardt using Google searches, the London Gazette, Ancestry and Findmypast and the archives of The Times and the South China Morning Post, I did not realise that somebody had trodden much of the same path. A short biography had been published in 1995 in a book of letters from him to the young daughters of a fellow officer written between 1929 and 1932.
From December 1918 until 1920 he painted a series of 21 water colours in a large sketchbook during the occupation of the Rhine Provinces. Three of these are shown below:
|The Rhine at Spire|
|The Rhine at Worms|
|Burkhardt photographed in London with First World War medal|
ribbons and what appear to be the red tabs of a staff officer
His first substantive role in China began in 1923, as a General Staff Officer Grade 2 in Tientsin. He was Brigade Major in the North China Command. His biography states that he travelled extensively in China before returning to U.K. in 1928. For these services he was appointed O.B.E. (military). His father died in 1929, in Shanghai.
|Tewfik, Suez 27 July 1935|
|South Gate, Angkor Wat 15 January 1936|
His most active phase in lepidoptery in Britain appears to have been after his final retirement from the army and before his departure to live in Hong Kong. At the back of the Winsor & Newton Sketcher’s note book he used for pencil drawings on his journey from and to the Far East in 1935-1936 and for landscapes in Southern England from 1939 to 1945 (Penang 12 July 1935 to Banstead Manor (now the home of the champion racehorse Frankel) dated 19th April 1945) are six pages with superb water colours of British butterflies he collected and in some cases bred. All show ranges of variations or ‘aberrations’, the collection and cataloguing of which was then the major interest, or obsession of many, amateur lepidopterists.
He was a a member of the South London (now the British) Entomological and Natural History Society from 1946. He published notes on collecting in West Surrey in 1947 in The Entomologist’s Record. He was a member of the US-based but international Lepidopterist’s Society.
|The first page of VRB's water colours from 1942 of variants of British butterflies.|
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria silene)
High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe then known as A. cydippe)
|Two forms of the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)|
|Variant of the Silver-washed Fritillary|
Variants of the Chalk Hill Blue (Polyommatus coridon)
collected around Salisbury in Wiltshire
|More variants of the Chalk Hill Blue (Polyommatus coridon)|
collected around Salisbury in Wiltshire
|A variant of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)|
The 'suffusa' form of the Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeus)
The legend to one of VRB’s sketches notes that a specimen of the variant named confluens of the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) was hunted for three days in the New Forest until eventually being caught by the Reverend J.N. Marcon (John Neville Marcon, 1903-1986). Marcon, in an article published in The Entomologist's record and Journal of Variation in 1975, recalled the abundance of butterflies at certain sites in southern England:
It was in these places that one would meet Castle Russell, Clifford Wells, Percy Bright cum chauffeur. Major Collier, Woollett, Labouchere, Hyde, Tetley, the two Craskes, Major-Gen. Lipscomb, Stockley, Ford, the Rev. Edwards, Col. Burkhardt and a number of other collectors. Nearly everyone caught something and a real gem was the talk of everyone for the rest of the morning.
When in Britain before the Second World War, VRB was also involved in a tight-knit circle of lepidopterists. Colin Pratt in his History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex wrote:
Shoreham Bank (Mill Hill) was nationally the most famous of all of the Sussex butterfly localities, yet its reputation was gained from just one phenomenon—the numbers and aberrations of the Chalk Hill Blue. The site's 20th century history has been mainly recorded by two giants of the net—R. M. Craske and A. E. Stafford.
The Chalk Hill Blue. that archetypal downland butterfly. has been nationally celebrated on the Bank since at least the 1820's (Stephens. 1828)—but. after a century and a half of tradition, I have seen more than one aged lepidopterist's eyes fill with tears when discussing the insect's modern history on those hills, now that even scientific collecting is technically banned. Despite the district's early reputation during the late 19th century knowledge of Mill Hill became lost. The slope was then rediscovered by a close band of variety collectors in 1928, although its delights were then kept secret from most enthusiasts until 1955.
The cream of British variety-hunters collected at Shoreham Bank during its golden age. The following figures are known to have worked the slope from the late 1920's until the start of the Second World War - P. M. Bright and his chauffeur. A. A. W. Buckstone. V. R. Burkhardt, B. H. Crabtree, R. M. Craske and his brother J. C. B. Craske, Kirwin, F. A. Labouchere, C. G. Lipscomb- the Reverend J. N. Marcon. E. de Mornay- S. Morris, A. E. Stafford. J. Tetley. C. Wells. C. de Worms. and L. H. Bonaparte Wyse. Most devotees only visited once or twice a year but the dedicated worked the Bank all day and every day for at least three weeks…
VRB’s water colours show some of the variation in Chalk Hill Blues (Polyommatus coridon) he collected in Salisbury between 11 and 24 August 1942.
When looking up the scientific names of the butterflies he sketched I realised that the pencilled legends on some of the landscapes at the front of his book referred to sites where had collected a particular species. Thus we have ‘Corydon’ (the old name for P. coridon) at Standlynch Down in Wiltshire on 10 September 1939 (one week after the declaration of war) and during his first, short-lived retirement. And ‘Paphia’ for a site of the Silver-washed Fritillary at Oakley North in Hampshire in 1941.
It would appear that he once had an extensive collection of set specimens he had collected in China and Hong Kong but that most of his observations were unpublished. His own paintings illustrated a paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch (of which J.R. Jones was President) in 1964; in that paper4 he stressed he pointed out more of the biology of butterflies than would have been expected from an amateur collector. He had another paper in the same journal that was published posthumously in 1970. That one5, on the breeding of Lamproptera curius in Hong Kong was introduced by J.B. Pickford and J Carey-Hughes (the latter a medical practitioner who died in 2012) and used Burkhardt’s notes. They state that in later years because of storage difficulties he did not keep his set specimens but made water colours of the many species he had caught. They also note that he was in correspondence with N.D. Riley of the Natural History Museum in London. I cannot help wondering where the records and paintings are now.
|Burkhardt's watercolours from his 1964 paper|
After the first version of this article appeared Stephen Blackmore wrote to me to say that he had actually met Colonel Burkhardt and Madame du Breuil in 1965 when he lived and was at school in Hong Kong:
I’ve just come across your piece about Colonel Burkhardt who I met in Stanley in 1965—a meeting that changed the course of my life—in ways that I’ve written about (and will eventually publish).
Despite the terrifying age difference (68 years) between us and his initial reluctance to have anything to do with me (a school friend’s mother who lived in Stanley suggested I meet him and organised it) he became immensely animated when we got onto talking about butterflies. I told him about the records I has been making, mainly on Bowen Road, and he told me that I was a naturalist and that what I was doing was research. At that point in life teachers hadn’t known what to do with me—I was considered to be a bit slow—and I had concluded that I must be very dim. At the time I though Natasha de Breuil must have been his wife—she made us a pot of tea and was more smiling that the Colonel when I first arrived at their house. She didn’t say very much. However, she did stay and listen to our conversation—I had a feeling that might have been to reassure me (I was quite in awe of him). We all end up laughing a lot when she described that he had reared dozens of atlas moths in their tiny living room. The house seemed a little place compared to the more modern flats we had lived in (which were not very big). He told me where to look for the larvae and I reared a few some years later (in 1969) when we lived in Stanley and by which time he had died.
Steve went on to be become Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh from 1999 to 2013. We met fairly regularly in the early 2000s but neither of us realised we had lived in Hong Kong at the same time.
|from Chinese Creeds and Customs|