The Art of

Jonathan Elphick
(Rizzoli International)
There are 212 plates in Birds, plus a few drawings dotted about here and there, including Leonardo's famous sketch of bird with wing. All are drawn from the Natural History Museum in London which has almost 1,000,000 books and 500,000 "works of art on paper." This means you are getting about .0004% of the museum's entire collection.

It ain't much, but what appears here is devilishly beautiful. It is arranged chronologically, starting with a woodcut from 1492 by one Hortus Sanitatis --- a village scene with eight birds --- followed by a 1550 watercolor, a ferociously beautiful ruffle-tailed rooster (technically a "jungle fowl," father to all our present day chickens).

In the wonderful Burros & Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, Everett Gee Jackson recalls flying over the Mexican jungle in an old DC3, bound for Lake Chapala. The airplane was cousin to many Mexican busses of that time (and this): it had no door, was filled with to the brim with fruit, vegetables, and livestock.

Somehow, a jungle fowl got out of its cage and when the crew tried to catch it, it flew right out the door. Jackson watched it for a long time, watched it circling, circling, knowing it would come to rest in a strange jungle, from whence it had gotten its name. Thus Mexican transportation.

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The chronological arrangement in Birds makes it possible for us to see why John James Audubon was so special. In contrast to those who came before him in the bird-sketch biz, his drawings had life, such life. Most of his predecessors, such as George Raper and Sarah Stone, were in the decorative business, making watercolors which were gorgeous, colorful, and stationary.

Fourteen of Audubon's representations are included in Birds. They veritably jump off the page. Audubon was haunted by more than birds. He was beset by the idea of producing the most gorgeous book of them all: he was forever and a day lugging his prints around, searching for the finest printer. Birds of America, finally issued in England, cost $100,000 in 1830's currency ... well over a million dollars today. The book was printed in "double elephant folio," more than three feet long by two feet wide. Not only was it big and heavy, it bankrupted everyone involved --- printers, publisher, author, distributors. The only ones who didn't go broke were the birds.

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There are four hand-colored lithographs by Edward Lear included here. His lithographs are far better than his limericks ... which I never thought to be naughty enough. I made up a limerick years ago which I trotted out at parties where people were trying to outdo each other in blue verse. I would wait for the right moment, and then I'd intone,

    There was a man from St. P.
    [Long pause here]
    Who got stung on the arm by a [pause] wasp;
    [These final lines to be recited rapidly]
    When asked if it hurt
    He said it didn't
    But he was certainly glad that it wasn't a hornet.

We couldn't be more enthusiastic about Birds (and birds). It is a dazzling production ... fully in the Audubon tradition: after the elephantine Birds in America came out and bankrupted everyone involved, the ornithologist followed it with a smaller edition; that is, one of normal size.

However, we Lilliputians want to think there might be a limit to "small." Let's put in a word for the hyperopiatic members of the reading world. I would estimate the type size here is about four or five point, which can be painful for some of us.

The plates are large enough, thank god: often full page size, sometimes bleeding onto the opposite page. There is no lack of prose, it's just off there in the distance somewhere. Its illegibility should not prove to be too onerous to those looking for pure beauty.

--- L. W. Milam
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