Book Review: Birds: The Art of Ornithology

Art historian and author Jean Marie Carey PhD reviews the Natural History Museum's Birds: The Art of Ornithology and discovers that it is both an informative scientific exploration and a love sonnet to the birds of the air, sea, and land. 


Birds: The Art of Ornithology

We, as mere humans, cannot see and feel as birds do as they navigate their habitats. Birds have immediate needs that relate directly to food availability, energy, water, and temperature, social contact, reproduction, predator detection, and shelter that are more complex than the features we perceive on their behalf as “nature.” Nevertheless, it is urgent for us to understand what bird species need from their surroundings as human intrusion, habitat loss, and climate change conspire to accelerate our need to make the best use of those habitats we can manage for the remaining populations of birds who survive. This is part of what makes Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick such a vital contribution to our historical knowledge.

A recent zoological conference in London featured a game of “Animal Studies Tic-Tac-Toe,” in which “David Attenborough” occupied a central square. Though the game was in jest, it is certainly true – and tellingly so that this is often the case even for those whose profession ostensibly involves the fauna of the wilderness – that for most people, the experience of nature is mediated by films such as those in the Life and Planet Earth series, augmented by precision editing, emotional cue music, and witty commentary.

Though not the overt intention of Birds: The Art of Ornithology, this book is a powerful reminder that connecting meaningfully with nature requires leaving the house, and that this experience is both transcendent and daunting. Birdwatching especially demands patience, silence, and solitude. Elphick conveys this foregrounding with subtlety, and describes the conditions faced by naturalists in the time before photography and video, who, tasked often only by their own passion – what John James Audubon characterized as “…nothing was left to me but my humble talents” – set out not only to observe birds but to record their activities and document their environments.

These efforts are represented in an assembly of exquisite images, represented here by selections from the collection of the Natural History Museum of London. Beginning with the work of documentarians in the 15th Century to visually annotate Pliny the Elder and continuing to the modern era of the field guide, Elphick weaves together the difficult but colourful paths of bird-artists from the well-known to the obscure, conveyed with insightful commentary and vignettes that give a sense of what life was like from the forested frontiers west of the Appalachians to the jungles of the Amazon. He underscores the turbulent social and economic forces at work in creating illustrated scientific literature. Significantly, though Birds does of course have thrilling colour plates of exotic species such as Angela Gladwell’s Southern Brown Kiwi (1997) [210] and Edward Lear’s Scarlet Macaw (1832) [123], Elphick also gives prominence to artists whose studies illuminated crucial aspects of behavior and evolutionary variation in “regular” birds. John Gould’s Pink-footed Goose (1865) [135] concentrates on the fowl’s essential features, a technique employed as far back as the Aurignacians and later adopted by the Expressionists, to vastly different ends. Similarly, Archibald Thorburn’s Carrion Crow (c. 1890) [175] captures the corvid’s alert intelligence through a tense posture and direct gaze.


Anyone familiar with Elphick's work knows his mastery of blending the history of science with an appreciation for the pioneers of natural history, and, most importantly, his deep knowledge of birds and their connection to the larger ecosystem. More than a compendium or “best of” plates or a rehashing of well-known biographical superficialities about Audubon and Thomas Bewick, Elphick pulls together disparate discussions about how such explorers worked and collected both images and data about bird habitats and behavior. Substantial new material recounts the challenges of printing and publishing these drawings and observations.

Elphick sublimates his own expertise in homage to his human and bird subjects. But his engrossing and compassionate prose elevates the text to a literary level, including anecdotes about characters such as the innovative, autodidactic lithographer Edward Lear (1812-1888) and that are by turns humorous, compelling, and moving. The haunting and dramatic Northern Eagle Owl by Edward Juilus Detmold (1930) [194], for example, is underscored by the story of the suicide of Detmold’s twin, Charles Maurice, also an animal painter, at the age of only 24, and Edward’s later depression and death. Buttressing the text, which incorporates scientific language but is still accessible to lay readers, are hundreds of illustrations. At once a richly detailed, informative, scientific exploration as well as a love sonnet to the birds of the air, sea, and land, Birds: The Art of Ornithology will appeal to fans of natural history, animal studies, art, and field- and armchair-birdwatchers.

The book is divided into five didactically-titled chapters, “Beginnings,” “Engravers and Explorers: 1650-1800,” “Audubon to the First Lithographers: 1800-1850,” “The Golden Age of Lithography: 1850-1890,” and “An Age of Transition: 1890-Today.” The latter third of the book is devoted to a generous bibliography and fully-annotated list of illustrations.

Apart from the book itself, but contained in the box set it comes in, are 36 unbound plates corresponding to illustrations from the book which the publisher indicates are “suitable for framing.” Finely printed on thick paper with a matte finish and exquisitely tinted, they certainly are, there is something to be said for being able to physically handle such pleasing facsimiles of Audubon’s famous red ibis or white pelican, not to mention the more stylized, startlingly modern black cockatoos by George Raper (1789) or the Southeast Asian Dusky Eagle Owl recorded by an anonymous artist (1840). This is a marvelous book project; my copy is already dog-eared, and I know I will read it many times more. In a succinct preface, Elphick modestly hopes that the book will encourage not only an appreciation for avifauna but an investment in their environmental outcome. The reality is that we cannot afford not to be so moved. The pace of habitat change is so terrifying that it is already too late to even dream of what once constituted the “natural habitat” of many of the avian species shown in the illustrations (and of course some, such as William Frohawk’s North Island Giant Moa (1905) [200], have already long been extinct). Successful avian conservation builds on improving our understanding of bird requirements and their habitat use. This book gives a lot of inspiration and a little bit of hope, and whether you are a casual birdwatcher or an ecology professional, I urge you to read it.

Jonathan Elphick. Birds: The Art of Ornithology. London: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum London, 2017; 224 pages with many color illustrations, index, and bibliography, plus 36 unbound color plates.


By Jean Marie Carey []