The Wonder of Birds: Nature, Art, Culture

Birds have been portrayed in myriad ways over the centuries. Victoria de Rijke admires a selection of some of the best

May 29, 2014

The Wonder of Birds: Nature, Art, Culture
Norwich Castle, until 14 September 2014

Artists have drawn inspiration from birds throughout history and any major museum could dig out hundreds of examples in every conceivable form. So how, then, to shape an exhibition on the “wonder of birds”?

Norwich Castle Museum is a wonder of a venue in itself. The heart of what was once a great complex built by the Norman kings of England, the castle is the biggest – and often considered the finest – secular building of its period in Northern Europe. The magnificent keep of pitted limestone faced with flint has had the internal palace floors removed, so that the visitor is struck with awe by the full height of a glorious Romanesque roof. From the 14th century, the keep became Norfolk prison, but when the jail was moved out of the castle in the 1880s, local architect Edward Boardman was keen to use all the extant buildings in a proposed natural history museum, apparently arguing: “If they will hold prisoners, they will hold dead birds.” It now houses one of the nation’s finest collections of taxidermy birds.

On entering the new temporary exhibition, visitors are immediately confronted with a gilded wall displaying the title, with a glass case featuring the Lustreware Hawk, a 12th-century Iranian masterpiece of lustred earthenware in red and gold. Look up! Hovering with wings outstretched above the title and pointing at it with its hooked beak is a fine specimen of a condor, the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere. Look again, and next to it is the smallest: the hummingbird. The contrast in scale is truly spectacular, and they are beautifully displayed with almost invisible wires and naturalistic taxidermy.

The exhibition is a combined flight of fancy by art curator Francesca Vanke and natural history curator David Waterhouse, who have pooled their considerable expertise and enthusiasm to display items from their own, national and private collections.

The show is a series of marvels. It starts with Archaeopteryx lithographica (meaning “ancient wing written in stone”), the fossil reminder that dinosaurs did not all die out, as birds are their descendants. There is an exquisitely delicate pencil drawing, Bird on a Branch by Andrea Mantegna (c.1470s-80s). We then come to some images of dodos never seen in public before, including Alfred Waterhouse’s 1870 design for London’s Natural History Museum interior, in turn based on a painting by Roelant Savery (c.1626). Herein lies a key problem of misrepresentation. Although the squat dodo shape is familiar to us, we now know it is inaccurate, owing to early depictions being copied from over-stuffed taxidermy specimens. The bird actually looked much more like Ectopistes migratorius (the passenger pigeon), said here to have become extinct by 1914.

Katrina van Grouw’s work bridges art, science and history. Having worked as a curator of birds at the Natural History Museum’s bird collection in Tring, Hertfordshire, she is also a skilled natural history illustrator. Skeleton of a Hornbill reveals the underlying structure of “the unfeathered bird”, showing how the skeleton, with its large, distinctive casque above the bill, has hollow bones to allow this heavy bird to fly.

Also in this thought-provoking section that introduces the fundamentals of birds is the Holbein treasure, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (c.15). The lady in question is argued to be Anne Lovell from the Norfolk town of East Harling. The little bird at her shoulder may play a heraldic role or function as a kind of visual play on the town’s name, as is common in Tudor portraits, but what is new in this exhibition is that a real squirrel and starling look down on you from the display cabinets above, as if they’ve just hopped out of the painting.

The exhibition is organised into themed rooms: predators and prey; birds and landscape; migrants and ocean travellers; the exotic; and the realms of the spirit. These neatly function as species categories while always playing with the tensions between the reality of birds and human interventions in their lives. Hawk Pouncing on Partridges (c.18) is an example of the pioneering work of John James Audubon, painted from real birds in the wild or freshly killed, which offered more authentic shapes. More than a century later came Eric Hosking’s remarkable photographs activated by birds’ natural movement. Despite losing an eye in an owl attack, Hosking had a lifelong passion for this bird and introduced innovative techniques for nocturnal photo shoots such as an auto-trip triggering the flash. This enabled him to capture on film scenes never before seen, such as a night hunter in mid-swoop, mouse in beak, in Heraldic Barn Owl (1948).

Bittern Photograph by one of the first women in wildlife photography, Emma Turner (1866-1940), shows a young bird camouflaged in the reeds, beak and throat characteristically up, reaching for the stars (hence its name, Botaurus stellaris). After the exhibition, you can go and see and hear a bittern in the wonderful dioramas of the natural history section of the museum – life-size displays of the birds in their natural habitat against backdrops of a Broadlands landscape, painted in the unmistakable Ladybird book style of the 1930s. By the 1990s, there may well have been more taxidermy specimens in Norwich Castle than live bitterns in the whole of Britain.

East Anglians have a special affection for birds and many dialect names for different species. The grey heron is the “hanser” (Hamlet knows “a hawk from a handsaw”). The song and yellow strip of Norwich City Football Club earn them the nickname of “the Canaries”. A small showcase in the exhibition includes a stuffed Serinus canaria – the yellow canary with a crest like a Beatles haircut or a toupee – making a playful reference both to the team and to Norwich’s Jacob Mackley (1850–1923), a famous breeder and national authority on the bird.

What may be new to visitors is the bold juxtaposition of high and popular art from oil paintings to lightning sketches, with the Picasso Dove placed alongside local artists’ watercolours and cartoons, and a beautifully preserved taxidermy specimen of the last living paradise parakeet accompanied by a Staffordshire ceramic parrot.

The curators of The Wonder of Birds have been particularly concerned to highlight the pioneers of unusual or innovative techniques. The witty Spring Cuckoo (2009) by Norfolk-based Harriet Mead, president of the Society of Wildlife Artists, is made of found metal objects. Geoffrey Mann’s Flight Take-off (2008) is an extraordinary computer-modelled sculpture forming a solid trace echo of a bird flying across a room, as if the “winged souls” that Ancient Egyptians considered birds to be had taken shape in glass.

The exhibition is also concerned to raise questions about our treatment of birds. One cabinet contains a once fashionable muff, collar and cuffs made of luminously gorgeous tiny grebe breast feathers; yet, as if to support the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in its disgust at the cruelty of vanity, a specimen of the same species turns its head away in revulsion.

Local museum it may be, but parochial it is not. Everything about this show is ambitious and interdisciplinary, allowing for investigative, conceptual flights of imagination across an exciting range of art, culture and nature. The surprising connections stimulate new ways of thinking about the topic by revelling in our fascination with the proliferation and the vulnerability, form and symbolism, musicality, flight and sheer wonder of birds.

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