Peter Beard

1938 — 2020


Peter Beard (1938–2020) was an American artist and writer whose visceral documentary approach to artmaking garnered great critical acclaim. As the writer Terry Southern once described: ‘[Beard’s] artistry may be seen as an exquisite synthesis of three major sources: Dutch/Flemish, Picasso/Braque, and, by his own account, the dark savagery of Francis Bacon.’

Beard was born in New York City to Anson McCook Beard and Roseanne Beard (née Hoar). A childhood obsession with nature blossomed during summers spent in Tuxedo Park with his grandmother. As a child Beard began what would become a lifelong practice of diary-keeping, filling books with everything from scribbled notes and sketches to newspaper clippings, bark, insects, mud, and animal skins. These densely-packed diaries, full of small universes where documentation and aesthetics collide, remain a vital part of Beard’s oeuvre. When Beard’s grandmother gifted him his first camera, a Voigtländer, photography quickly became a natural extension of the diaries as a way of preserving memories. The detailed collages from his leather-bound journals are often echoed in the margins of his photographs, with borders dense with layered contact sheet clippings, feathers, leaves, and smears of blood.

A trip to Africa at age seventeen with Quentin Keynes, the explorer and great-grandson of Charles Darwin, who was working on a documentary on rare wildlife, ignited Beard’s lifelong fascination with the continent and its wildlife. He spent the summer photographing wildlife in South Africa, Zululand, Bechuanaland, Portuguese East Africa, Madagascar and Kenya. After a year at Felsted School in Essex, Beard enrolled at Yale University, which he attended from 1957 to 1961. As a pre-med student, Beard began to form his enduring hypothesis that mankind was, in fact, the world’s greatest disease. After switching his major to Art, he studied under Vincent Scully, Joseph Albers, and Richard Lindner. An insatiable desire for exploration lured him back to Africa, however, and in lieu of completing his senior thesis at school, he mailed in his diaries from Kenya.

In the 1960s Beard received a special dispensation from President Kenyatta to purchase a large ranch in Kenya, which he dubbed Hog Ranch, with the mandate that he film, photograph, write, and document the local flora, fauna, and peoples. During this time Beard began his famous documentation of Tsavo National Park. These photographs of the massive die-off of elephants and rhinoceroses from starvation, stress, and density-related diseases formed the basis of his celebrated book The End of the Game, first published in 1965 with a second iteration published in 1977, which documented Kenya’s wildlife crisis and discussed its global implications.

It was a shared concern for the plight of the elephants that formed the catalyst for a friendship between Beard and the British artist Francis Bacon. As Beard recalled, ‘I was at one of his openings at the Marlborough Gallery in London where he was standing in some kind of reception line and I simply said, “Hi — Peter Beard.” He said, “I know who you are.” It was my very great luck that he had just bought The End of the Game and connected with the doomed pachyderms.’ The two became close friends and admirers of each other’s work and served as one another’s subjects on many occasions. Over the years Beard befriended and collaborated with many of the most recognised figures of the 20th century, including Salvador Dalí, Truman Capote, Jonas Mekas, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Andy Warhol, whom he regularly visited at The Factory. 

Along with The End of the Game, Beard published a number of books featuring his artworks, including Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men; Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa, and Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa. His works have been exhibited in numerous international museums and institutions including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the International Center of Photography, New York, the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo; the Palazzo Reale-Sala delle Cariatidi, Milan; and the Centre national de la photographie, Paris.