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Birds: The Art of Ornithology

Art / Photobook

By: Jonathan Elphick (Author)

336 pages, 200+ colour & b/w illustrations

London Natural History Museum

Hardback | Aug 2014 | Edition: 2 | #208146 | ISBN-13: 9780565093327
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £19.99 $24/€22 approx

About this book

This historical survey tells the remarkable story of the development of bird art through the centuries. From the early, skilfully executed and decorative but often fanciful images of birds, to scientific illustrations produced during the ages of exploration, to modern approaches to capturing the essence of these freest of all creatures on the page or canvas. The outstanding selection of images from the unrivalled collection at the Natural History Museum includes exquisitely crafted works from some of the most famous natural history artists ever published including Audubon, Gould, MacGillivray, and Bauer. They are complemented by detailed, lively text, which interweaves ornithological science, art history, biography and travel. With fascinating details of the lives of both the artists and the birds they painted, a vivid picture is revealed. This landmark book will fascinate anyone interested in birds, natural history and art, and it is relaunched in a striking new format for autumn 2013.

"Birds have fascinated mankind for thousands of years. Jonathan Elphick notes that birds are found among ancient cave art. In Birds: The Art of Ornithology Mr. Elphick distils art associated with the scientific study and natural history of birds over the last several hundred years. The book focuses on paintings by UK artists since 1650, primarily drawing upon artwork held by the Natural History Museum in London. Four main chapters are arranged in chronological order covering 1650–1800, 1800–1850, 1850–1890, and 1890–today.

This volume is much more than a picture book. Approximately one third of the book is well-written text. The other two-thirds consists of plates complete with detailed figure captions. The text is largely a series of short artist biographies. The biography of John James Audubon is by far the longest, as approximately 14 pages. Some biographies are a paragraph. I found numerous interesting stories interjected into these biographies including Rembrandt and the Great Bittern, how in some instances artwork has been used as type specimens serving as the basis for formal descriptions of new species, and the meeting between Alexander Wilson and Audubon. My heart broke reading of the time 200 of Audubon's paintings and almost 800 drawings were destroyed by rats. Nor I did not appreciate how much effort early artists expended raising money from subscribers to pay for publication of their work.

The book will primarily be of interest to a UK audience drawn to both art and science. The majority of the artists are from the UK or spent much of their career working in the UK. The paintings selected were mostly by artists who focused on illustrating books or documenting the avifauna of a new region. This is not a book about birds in fine art (versus applied art). Alexander Wilson, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Léo Paul Samuel Robert, Bruno Liljefors, Eric Ennion, Roger Tory Peterson, and Robert Bateman are mentioned, but none of their paintings are shown. The artists Don Eckelberry, Guy Coheleach, and Ned Smith are not mentioned. Apparently, nor are any artists native to Russia, China, South America or Africa, to my knowledge.

I recommend the book as a good overview of applied art from UK artists and a fine complement to books like Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900 by Sacheverell Sitwell, Twentieth Century Wildlife Artists by Nicholas Hammond, and The Wildlife Art of Ned Smith by Scott Weidensaul."
- Mark Miller, BTO book reviews

Related titles

See the previous edition

Birds: The Art of Ornithology (Mini-Edition)

Telling the remarkable story of the development of bird art through the...

NHBS Price: £9.99 $12/€11 approx

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Jonathan Elphick is a natural history author, editor and consultant who specialises in ornithology. During a career spanning more than 40 years, he has worked on many books, including writing award-winning titles such as Birdwatcher's Handbook. Among many other projects, he spent four years as researcher for the acclaimed bestseller Birds Britannica, written by Mark Cocker. Jonathan has travelled extensively to study bird life and was elevated to Scientific Fellowship of the Zoological Society of London in recognition of his services to the popularisation of zoology. The Library of the Natural History Museum is a repository for one of the most exciting and comprehensive collections of natural history literature and artworks to be found anywhere in the world. It holds over half a million artworks, comprising one of Britain's biggest art collections and representing all the great natural history artists, and many thousands of books, including some richly illustrated volumes of great historical significance.

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