van Gelderen, Gerrit (1926–94), naturalist, wildlife film-maker, broadcaster, and author, was born 26 August 1926 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, eldest child of Johannes Gerardus van Gelderen, a local-authority employee who lived within the municipal park where he worked. Familiar from childhood with the park's wildlife, Gerrit went to secondary school in Rotterdam and assisted in surveying the plants and animals of the wildlife sanctuary at De Beer, outside the city, in the late 1930s. He witnessed the city's bombing in 1940, and its German occupation until 1945. Although he was forced to spend a year at a labour camp in Germany, some of his bitterest war memories included the military fortification of De Beer, and subsequently its post-war Europoort industrial development, polluting the Rhine–Maas delta. His other favourite nature reserve, the Biesbosch, adjacent to Dordrecht, was protected against the sea but became, in van Gelderen's opinion, homogenised into a sterile replacement of true wilderness.
After attending the college of art in the Hague, his impatience for adventure led him to hitch-hike through the environmental oases of post-war Scandinavia, working casually and selling units of his blood for cash. In August 1955 wanderlust eventually brought him to his adoptive homeland of Ireland, in response to an advertisement for commercial artists at Sun Advertising in Dublin. There he joined other foreign staff, whose continental design training was valued more highly than the Irish equivalent, particularly in areas such as aircraft drawing. Although struggling financially and socially in a strange country, he had discovered the bird life of a pre-industrialised landscape – a landscape he believed Holland had now lost. Travelling around Ireland's natural habitats, including the Great Saltee Island, a major bird sanctuary in Co. Wexford whose ornithological survey team was then mostly English, van Gelderen discovered a scant Irish public awareness of indigenous wildlife. He committed his future to celebrating and promoting it through his artistic talents, primarily illustration, photography, and, by extension, documentary film.
His future wife, Lize (‘Lies’) Henderson, of distant Scottish ancestry, also a naturalist, travelled from Rotterdam soon after his own arrival and agreed to settle in Dublin. Married in 1956, they occupied a flat in Edenvale, an old house with a large, wild garden at Conyngham Road, directly between the Phoenix Park and the River Liffey. Here they kept a Galway currach, in which they rowed downstream to the city centre. The garden became an eccentric outdoor laboratory, sufficiently tamed for van Gelderen to attract and photograph wildlife in action. As a result of this interest, an unexpected career opportunity arose in the early 1960s. His employment in advertising had been regular but erratic, moving from Sun Advertising (1958) to the Irish Farmers’ Journal as cartoonist/illustrator, photographer, and columnist, then (1960) to Janus Advertising. His distinctive graphic style (with crisp, at times extensive, captioning) charged potentially dry illustrative material with palpable energy. Using his equally individual cartooning talent, he criticised human destruction of the environment. At about the time Irish national television began regular broadcasting as Telefís Éireann in 1962, his wildlife hobby formed the basis of friendship and professional collaboration with the Dublin supplier of his animal food, Parnell St. pet shop proprietor and environmentalist Éamon de Buitléar.
Having persuaded the infant Telefís Éireann to grant them a weekly programme on Irish wildlife entitled ‘Amuigh faoin spéir’ (‘Out under the sky’), van Gelderen and de Buitléar soon became household names, sharing the struggles and accolades of their surprising success. Van Gelderen's graphic and cartoon talents merged into rapid sketches on screen as de Buitléar spoke a commentary in English and Irish. Initially made in studio with live fauna, including a troublesome mute swan which van Gelderen had captured on the River Liffey for the first programme, the series ventured outdoors, filming largely in van Gelderen's own semi-wild garden. Ultimately, as their series gained in popularity (van Gelderen subsequently illustrating Justin Keating's ‘Telefís feirme’ series), a studio Land Rover and outdoor crew were provided for more adventurous programming. Their work won them a prestigious Jacobs Award in 1967. They became inextricably linked in the public mind, but agreed to follow separate careers when they outgrew their original working relationship. Success provided each with opportunities to work independently, van Gelderen setting his sights on challenging overseas environments.
In the mid 1970s he created his own television series, ‘To the waters and the wild’. He filmed extensively in Ireland but also travelled to the USA, Canada, Iceland, Europe, Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and India, depending greatly on sponsorship, available transport, and the frequent kindness of strangers. Braving extremes of climate and, for the sake of his independent career, risking every danger from drugs to guns and warring revolutionaries, he earned the international respect of his peers. He served on the executive of An Taisce, edited its journal, and illustrated and wrote articles for periodicals such as the youth magazine Our Boys. Van Gelderen co-wrote several publications, notably The Irish wildlife book (1979), edited by Fergus O'Gorman, and wrote his autobiographical To the waters and the wild: adventures of a wildlife film maker (1985). The latter encapsulated his life as a travelling environmentalist, modestly recording his opinions, especially on his beloved Irish landscape and the carelessness of those who damage it through greed and ignorance. He included cartoons, gently aimed at hunters, polluters, politicians, and developers, concluding pessimistically that ‘it would have been nice’ to end on a cheerful note. His autobiography reveals the agreeable, although determined, personality within, accepting the world as it is while doing his utmost to focus public attention on the vulnerable beauty of natural habitats. Emphasising the absence of political frontiers in nature, he underlined his philosophy of life.
Gerrit van Gelderen was a name and a voice instantly recognisable to a generation of Irish television viewers that did much to encourage many natives to appreciate the ecology of the country he had adopted as his own. He and Lize had four children: three sons – Merlin (1962), Finn (1968), and Oisín (1970) – and a daughter, Aoife (1964). They lived latterly at Twayblade, Sandyford, Co. Dublin, where he died suddenly 28 February 1994, while recovering from a lung operation. He was cremated at Glasnevin cemetery.