Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When Painters Spread Heir Wings and Fly

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When Painters Spread Heir Wings and Fly

Article excerpt

In December last year, a copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America became the world's most expensive book when it sold for over [pounds sterling]7m, thus drawing brief attention to an art form that has never quite received the recognition it deserves.


Yet as fine as Audubon's work is, (black-and-white images were painstakingly hand-coloured by the artist himself, using watercolours softened with chalk and pastel for the finest plumage), I find many of his images awkward and not altogether lifelike.

This is a heresy for lovers of bird illustration but, when I look at an Audubon plate, I do not need to be told that his subjects were dead when he painted them, (he used very fine shot, to minimise damage); I can see it in the odd attitudes of his burrowing owls, or the crazy posture of his American swan.

This is unfair, of course: most earlier-19th-century bird artists worked from dead specimens, or even skins, and some of Audubon's plates (the exquisite blue jays, the solitary vireo, the great American shrike) are among the most beautiful bird paintings ever made.

Yet, there were others who created extraordinary images of avian life and, to my mind, one of the finest is Joseph Wolf, a German emigre who arrived in London in 1848 and set about revolutionising the art. As CE Jackson notes, in Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography, Wolf was "the first artist who made a successful full-time career of painting animals and birds, doing that and nothing else.

He achieved this because he knew and loved the birds as wild, living, free creatures. The earlier artists had gone to the museums and copied specimens ... Wolf went out into the countryside and looked at the birds in their natural habitats."

Crucially, this change of practice shifted the focus from the painter's decorative skills to the actuality of birds in their natural state. …

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