From Swithland Rectory to Vimy Ridge: The story of nature artist Otto Murray Dixon

Speaker: Anne Horton

21 March 2017

Herself a former Rector of Swithland, Anne became interested in the artist Otto Murray Dixon and her talk was punctuated with personal reminiscences and photographs from the family, and his pictures throughout. 

Henry Edward Otto Murray Dixon (known as Harry as a child) was born in 1885 a year after his father, James, became rector of Swithland. His earliest years were spent at the old 18th century rectory before the new one was built in 1891. His mother, Etheldreda, came from a wealthy family, the Trevelyan’s from Nettlecombe Court in Somerset, her grandfather a baronet and her father a rector. On his father’s side, Harry’s great grandfather was the landlord of the Red Lion in Henley upon Thames, a public house that George III is known to have visited.

Along with his two sisters Harry started school at Swithland in 1894. His earliest known picture is of a heron, labelled “for dear John” which was painted in 1897 when he was 12.   On it, he signed his name as Otto Murray Dixon.  He used one of the top rooms in the rectory as a studio.  From 1903 to 1908 he wrote Nature Notes about the birds he’d shot, the eggs he'd taken and the wildlife he’d encountered around Swithland.

His artistic education included Leicester School of Art, Calderon's School of Animal Painting in Baker Street, London and the Royal Academy Schools. He was also taught by Archibald Thorburn the noted wildlife artist.  JG Millais’s book British Diving Ducks published in 1913 contains his works, and many were published in the London Sporting and Dramatic Magazine and The Field.

Murray Dixon volunteered with the Seaforth Highlanders in World War I. He was commissioned in 1915.   In his memoir ‘Last Man Standing’  Norman Collins remembers him as a charming man, but that he was unable to remember to lead off on the left foot on parade. He painted throughout the war and included sketches in his letters home, focusing on the wildlife rather than the horrors of war.  His last known picture was ‘Rats in the Trenches’ (1917).  

He was fatally injured at Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday 1917 at the age of 31.  The first day of the Battle of Arras which was fought from 9 April-16 May and cost 165,000 British lives.   He is buried in Aubigney Communal Cemetery Extension . His father wrote “by someone, somewhere in France, a man of peace he fell in war, giving his life for others.”  He is remembered on Swithland War Memorial along with other young men who died in World War I.