People passionate about nature

Angus Shortt

Ralph Bird Award recipient 1987

He was born in Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, September 25, 1908. He and his family came to Canada in 1910, settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

His mother was a skilled artist, specializing in flower studies in both watercolours and oils, and also was a gifted china painter. She encouraged Angus’s interest in drawing and painting. His great grandfather, James Angus, from whom he takes his name, was a Scotsman and a designer with one of the Belfast linen manufacturers, specializing in decorative tablecloths, etc.

In 1917 the family moved from downtown Winnipeg to Deer Lodge, St. James, on the western outskirts of the city. The new home was situated in an area of unspoiled woodland and prairie, affording excellent opportunity for studying natural history. Drawings of birds took precedence and a first effort, the various Manitoba woodpeckers done in watercolour on a sheet of cartridge paper, was pinned up on the classroom wall by his teacher in grade 5. Another early study of birds, also a watercolour, was painted on the back pf a Hudson’s Bay Company calendar. This effort featured 24 different species. Painted in 1922, it is now a treasured memento of those early days. His first duck painting was a pair of mallards, done in 1929.

After Linwood High School in 1926, he started to serve an apprenticeship as a wood engraver with Brigdens of Winnipeg, at $6 per week of 44 hours. With the onset of the Depression in 1931, wood engraving was phased out as a method of catalogue for illustration and he was laid off. Efforts to find other employment in the commercial art field were unavailing as jobs were not to be had. However, encouraged by his father, he resumed study and sketching of birds.

The well-known Winnipeg naturalists, B.W. Cartwright and A.G. Lawrence, gave invaluable advice and assistance at this time.

A membership in the Natural History Society of Manitoba (Nature Manitoba) laid the foundation of a long and fruitful association during which he served in various executive capacities in the Ornithological Section, culminating in his election as President of the Society from 1947-1949. He gave many talks on birds, all of which were illustrated with his own hand-painted slides. These were painted in watercolour on illustration board 5” by 5” square and projected on the screen through an epidioscope. Money for notebooks and art supplies was obtained by sale of small watercolours of birds and flowers, including Christmas cards.

In 1935, with the formation of the Manitoba Museum, he was ppointed Artist-Technicaian. In this post, he was responsible for bird and mammal exhibits, as well as co-operative work in the displays for other branches of natural history, notably the restoration and assembly of the skeleton of the prehistoric plesiosaur, an 18-foot-long aquatic reptile, from Treherne, Manitoba. This latter work was carried out under the direction of Professor E.I. Leith of the University of Manitoba. Working on a shoestring budget in those days, much ingenuity and imagination was called upon. Nevertheless, several group displays in large showcases were completed. These included Grant’s lake (featuring blue and snow geese), an early settler’s cabin, and a miniature (to scale) of the famous Indigenous Ceremonial grounds in Whiteshell, following a canoe survey into the area with W.H. Rand and B.W. Cartwright.
During the summers of 1937-38 he was loaned to the National Museum of Canada to carry out ornithological surveys under the late P.A. Taverner, in Western Manitoba from The Pas south to Riding Mountain.

From 1937-38 he illustrated a series of articles on Manitoba wildlife, written by B.W. Cartwright and published by the Winnipeg Tribune, and for a number of years wrote the popular bird column, “Wild Wings”, for the same newspaper, following the retirement of B.A. Cartwright.

In September, 1938, he went to New York as taxidermist to the American Museum of Natural History under a special four-months grant.

In January, 1939, he accepted the position of Artist-Technician with the newly formed, U.S.-sponsored, waterfowl conservation agency, Ducks Unlimited (Canada), and in 1965 was named their Art Director.

In March of 1939 he married Betsy Haak who was an active member of the Natural History Society of Manitoba. Their marriage was a happy one from the beginning, as they shared together a deep and lasting love of nature. Betsy has, over the years, become widely known as a competent judge of flowers and flower arrangements and for 18 years served as one of the top judges at the annual International Flower Show in Winnipeg as well as at many other points in the province. Both have contributed articles to the “Prairie Garden”, official publication of the Manitoba Horticultural Association.

During these years, their friendship with the late Hector Macdonald, who was supervisor of Winnipeg Parks, an expert on wild flowers of Manitoba, and a professional horticulturalist trained in Scotland, led to experimentation with colour photography of nature, chiefly of wild flowers. Slides of these flowers were shown to many different organizations throughout the province. This created a further interest in the flowers in the parks and a meeting with the Twomey brothers, Gerry and Patrick, of T&T Seed Co. They supplied plants and bulbs to be grown in the Shortt garden and to be photographed for catalogue use. This was an interesting phase as many unusual varieties were involved and brought pleasure and renewed interest with each succeeding year.

A son, Terrence Adrian, born in 1947, also chose nature as his field, graduating in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Microbiology from the University of Manitoba. He, too, is skilled at drawing and has an artist’s good eye for colour an composition.

Angus’s work with Ducks Unlimited included preparation of coloured maps and graphics for use in full-length colour silent films which were produced annually. This work was carried through into the era of sound films. The other important facet of work was in connection with donor projects. Sponsored by individuals, groups and States, this program proved immensely popular and resulted in preparation of photo presentation brochures. Each was designed with a hand-lettered cover on which was painted a pair of ducks, generally in flight and representing a sporting duck common to the area of the sponsors. In effect, each brochure was “one of a kind” and they were prized by recipients. Over the 34 years to retirement in October, 1973, a total of 270 of these colourful books were completed.

Early in his career he lost the sight in his right eye, which was a traumatic experience in his life, as the future of his art seemed jeopardized. However, this period was surmounted and he was able to continue with his excellent work.
Waterfowl for Ducks Unlimited found quick acceptance in the United States. Tom Main, then General Manager, gave whole-hearted encouragement and was largely instrumental in establishing Angus’s popularity among American duck hunters.

Contacts with U.S. and Canadian sportsmen led to a steady demand for paintings of ducks and geese. Aside from these commissions, he found time to paint and donate pictures to various Ducks Unlimited State Committees to be used in fundraising programs and dinner auctions, raising thousands of dollars toward the work of Ducks Unlimited. The directors unanimously approved a proposal that he devote the entire year prior to retirement painting exclusively for Ducks Unlimited.

A series of his Manitoba wildflower and bird paintings was sent on a world tour in connection with a South African Wildlife Conservation program in 1946.

That same year he was awarded the bronze medal of the Natural History Society of Manitoba for original researches in ornithology and his work as a bird painter.

In 1947 he was elected member of the American Ornithologits Union.

In 1948 he was commissioned by Sports Afield Magazine to illustrate a series of articles on ducks and geese. Written by B.W. Cartwright, then Chief Naturalist with Ducks Unlimited. This series was later issued in a deluxe bound edition, “Know Your Ducks and Geese”, now a collector’s item. There are four printings of this book.

In 1962, he designed a set of 12 silver medallions commemorating Confederation. Floral emblems of the 10 provinces and 2 territories in stylized form was the basis for the designs; the reverse side showed the map of each province with date of entry into Confederation.

In 1963 his design for a 15-cent airmail stamp featuring four Canada Geese in flight was selected and used by The Canada Post Office. This stamp was overwhelmingly rated the best stamp design of the year by the “London Free Press” stamp popularity poll. In conjunction with this stamp he produced over 500 miniatures of this design for stamp collectors, as well as several original oil paintings.

A one-man show of his original paintings was held in February, 1969, in the new offices of Ducks Unlimited in Fort Garry, Winnipeg.

In 1969 he was presented with the Good Citizenship Award plaque by the Manitoba Tourist and Convention Association for his work in the field of conservation.

In 1970 he was honoured by the Manitoba Historical Society with the Centennial Gold Medal of Remembrance also for his work in the field of conservation.

In 1971 he began “Marsh World”, a series of black and white illustrations accompanied by a brief text dealing with the wildlife of a marsh – birds, mammals, plants, insects, etc, Issued weekly, this popular series ran for 4 years and appeared in over 1000 newspapers, weeklies and wildlife magazines across Canada. In 1975 a selection of 158 was published in book form.

He served as Honorary President of the Manitoba Naturalists Society from 1965-1974, and was presented with an Honorary Life Membership in 1974.

He was exhibited at the American Ornithologists Union meeting at Toronto in 1933, Regina in 1958, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1972.

He had a special exhibit at the Crafts Guild of Manitoba in 1973, and exhibited at the opening of Loch Wildlife Art Gallery in 1976.

From January to March, 1975, he exhibited in Alloway Hall in the Museum of Man and Nature, On opening night there was a lineup of 1000 people extending outside the building in 15 degree below zero weather, to see his paintings, the best turnout the Gallery had ever had.

He painted a series of 30 miniatures in watercolour for a Michigan member of Ducks Unlimited, who took them to Japan as gifts for Japanese business men with whom he deals. These were of colourful song birds of Manitoba. Following this he completed a similar order of 15 for our Finance Minister who was using them for the same purpose on his visits to Japan and Europe.  The miniatures have been much in demand.

In 1942 T.C. Main, the General Manager of Ducks Unlimited Canada, chose one of his early canvasback paintings for presentation to the retiring Ducks Unlimited Canada President, W.C. Fisher of Calgary. This set a precedent, and many of the succeeding presidents and directors were recipients of one of his originals on their retirement.

His canvasback paintings are much admired and continue to be his favourite duck in popularity with sportsmen, second only to the mallard, followed by the pintail, widgeon, scaup and black duck. In recent years his Canada Goose paintings have become great favourites.

In 1981 he was the recipient of Ducks Unlimited Canada 1981-82 Art Awards – Artist of the Year – in recognition of his artistic ability and contributions to the preservation of North America’s Wildlife Heritage.

Honorary Life Membership 1974

Mr. Shortt’s contribution to natural history has been two-fold. As an ornithologist he has few equals in the Prairies, and he is considered one of Canada’s leading authorities on birds of prey. As an artist he has gained international recognition for his paintings on birds and flowers. Mr. Shortt has been an active MNS member since his youth, serving in various capacities, addressing the Society on numerous topics, and even re-drawing the Society’s logo. He has been Honorary President of MNS for many years.