Birds: The Art of Ornithology

This little book from the Natural History Museum was a present. It's a very strange book, being a mixture of pretty pictures and a dense and fairly academic text giving the history of bird artists. It really isn't a bird book, being so concentrating on the lives of the artists, and the pictures chosen are not so much chosen as birds as examples of art.

Of course, I'm a completionist, so I read the full text, rather than just looking at the pretty pictures. The writing alternates between incredible tedium of enumerating a bunch of obscure bird artists, with the occasional story of completely unbelievable and amazing lives.

Discussing the history of bird art really brings the difficulties of historical science to the fore. Without photography, a drawing or a dead bird is the best you're likely to get to render the animal. Neither scales - you can't give everyone a huge collection of dead animals, and high-quality colour reproductions of images were incredibly expensive and manually intensive, so that many of the books of birds ran to a few hundred copies at most. Travel was extremely hard and dangerous, so knowledge of wildlife from outside Europe travelled slowly. In such a world, science must have been incredibly hard.

One of the themes that emerges towards the end of the book was how the gun was eventually replaced by binoculars as the best way of identifying a distant bird. Between that and the regular depiction of extinct birds throughout the book, there's a strong theme that our history with birds has been a somewhat messy one.

Posted 2020-01-03.