Thursday, April 30, 2015

Birds of a feather: Why did Gould, Havell and Audubon love birds so much?

Mountain Mockingbirds & Thrushes

Well for one thing, these wondrous feathered creatures have inspired humankind for thousands of years. Also birds keep us connected to nature, densely populated city. Even though, many of us live in towns, large and small; you only have to look out your window to see some bird species living right along beside us. I even captured a photo of a large tom turkey finding little juicy tidbits in my yard last week. We are constantly reminded we live as part of the natural world and its creatures. We love their song, from the call of a bluejay, the soft hooting of an owl at night, or the call of ducks, wild geese or even swans overhead, they enthrall and delight us. So it is no wonder, to me, anyway, why these bird lovers spent so much of their lives studying, drawing and chronicling species of birds.

John Gould was an English ornithologist who lived 1804 to 1881 as well as an accomplished and critically acclaimed bird artist. Along with his wife, Elizabeth, and other artists, such as Edward Lear and William Hart,  he published a number of monographs on birds with illustrated plates. In Australia, he is been considered the “Father of bird study” and the Gould League is named after him.

Indigo Birds, Engraving

He worked closely in his position as an ornithologist with many of the country's leading naturalists and was often the first to see new collections of birds given to the Zoological Society of London. His notable contribution to the world of science is identifying “Darwin’s Finches” which played a key role in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and is  referenced in Darwin’s seminal work “On the Origin of Species.” When Darwinbrought his specimens to the Geological Society of London, he brought the bird specimens to Gould. One of Gould’s major works, “The Birds of Australia,” has over 600 plates and is comprised of seven volumes; and 328 of the species described were new to science and named by Gould. Other works were “The Bird’s of England” and The Birds of Europe.”

Eastern Rosella Parakeets
Artists created the lithographic plates from Gould’s rough sketches which he made on paper. A lithograph is a form of printing process whereby drawings or paintings, etc., are printed and reproduced; this final product is thus known as a lithograph, and considered an authorized artist or craftsman copy of an original work and are usually signed or numbered. Creating a lithograph does not require the print-maker to first etch the image into metal plates and prints can be made on a stone table or metal plate with the images from duplicated using this method. Gould would quickly make rough sketches in an attempt to capture the distinctive features of each species usually working from the newly killed specimens or nature (so sad). He would then oversee his artists throughout the entire process from rough sketches to the finished drawings, which were worked by engraver, William Hart into colored lithographs. In the introduction to the books, Gould could firmly state then that these works were completely hand-colored and also noted that one should be greatly amazed by the fact the there was almost 280,000 illustrations in the present book! One would have to agree that this is an astonishing feat.

The name Audubon is synonymous with birds. John JamesAudubon (born Jean-Jacques Audubon in the French colony of what is now Haiti) lived from 1785-1851 was our most notable American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He is most well known for the expansive studies and explorations he conducted to record all known American birds. He has contributed a wonderful legacy in his detailed depictions of birds in their natural habitat. The Birds of America, published 1827-1839, is his major work. This book with its colored plates is undoubtedly one of the finest ornithological works ever made. In it, 25 new species were identified by Audubon.

After coming to America as a young man, mainly to avoid the Napoleonic wars and not being suited to the career in the naval field as his father had hoped, he continued his studies of birds being assisted in taxidermy as well as scientific methods of research by the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D'Orbigny. Audubon continued his bird studies and even formed his own nature museum.

Audubon felt a keen affinity for birds from early childhood. He was encouraged by his father to pursue his naturalist instincts. He took note of their delicate movements, as well as the softness of their feathers and their beauty. He felt their forms “perfect” in their “splendid attire.”  As an avid ornithologist he would take note of their migration patterns and how some would return with the seasons.

After he was able to raise the capital, he completed his work The Birds of Americawhich is considered the greatest picture book ever produced and the finest aquatint work. Within it, were hand-colored, almost 500 life-size prints of American bird species which were printed onto large paper sheets from engraved copper plates of various sizes, arranged as if one was taking a visual tour and for their artistic effect and contrasting interest. Color was applied painstakingly by over fifty workers. The original edition was engraved by Robert Havell, Jr in aquatint. Aquatint  is used in intaglio printmaking, whereby marks are made on a copper or zinc plate holding ink. This plate is then passed through a printing press with paper, thus transferring the ink to the paper.

Up until about a year ago, I had never tried painting animals or birds. I always said I didn’t have a knack for it. When they were young children, my daughters would ask me to draw animals for them, but they were definitely laughable. My deer looked like dogs….and my dogs looked like rats…or something indescribable.

Mallard Duck
Two years ago at Mother’s Day, knowing that my mother was very fond of wildbirds, I decided to try and paint a bluebird for her. It didn’t turn out too bad and she loved it (thanks mom). And if you happened to see my church mural on an earlier post, you can see my efforts with a few waterfowl. I am definitely no Audubon, Havell, or Gould, I do find painting animals, birds, flora and fauna very enjoyable. I think it is not difficult to understand why birds captivated the hearts and minds of the ornithologists and painters. They still do. So don’t be surprised if you see more wildlife and bird painting and articles on this blog! Namaste-Mariehelena

Other sources: Wisegeek: clear answers for common questions, Wikipedia, Reproduced Fine Art

Graphics sources:

Mountain Mockingbird and Indigo Bird by Robert Havell, Jr. (1827-1838). Color engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Department, Washington, D.C.

Lithographic print. (circa 1940) Eastern Rosella Parakeets by John Gould.  Author’s private collection.

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