The Galah - from A Brush with Birds: Australian Bird Art published by the National Library of Australia

Winged Wonders

Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2009

Penny Olsen

From the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater to the Red Goshawk, Australia's birds have enchanted artists since the very first settlement. An enchanting new book provides a pictorial aviary of the country's feathered friends.

Australia has a rich history of ornithological illustration. The earliest European records and drawings of Australia’s birds can be found in the narrations of the 17th century voyages of discovery.  Even before colonisation by Europeans, the naming of the new species collected on the voyages of James Cook in the first half of the 1770s resulted in the description of nearly 100 species of birds out of the 800 or so that occur regularly in Australia.

This was the raison d’être for much early Australian bird art; scientific description, the claiming and naming of new species and their illustration in books.  A new system of classifying the natural world had been introduced and the museums and menager of Europe were being greedily filled with examples of the world’s diversity.

An interest in natural history was fashionable, influenced by the Romantic Movement, which admired nature’s beauty and wildness.  It was also a sign of the educated, so the public was hungry for information on the discovery of new lands and their novel creatures.  At the time of settlement in the late 18th century, Australian avifauna was at the height of its fame in Europe.

It is hard to imagine now the frisson caused by extraordinary species like the lyrebird, named for its evocative tail; the kookaburra with its hearty laugh; the emu, a huge bird that only walked; and, of course, the many parrots, each more brilliant than the last.  And what of the black swan, the antithesis of the familiar white swan and the perfect metaphor for the topsy-turvy Antipodes, complete with inverted seasons, at the underside of the globe.

The illustration of Australian birds began with stilted reproductions of a living creature based on a dead bird, perched in a Europeanised or anyplace setting, unruffled by wind and weather and unexerted by wing beats.  In the 200 years since, illustration has evolved into realistic portraits, well-grounded in familiarity with the live bird and knowledge of its personality, habits and habitats.  Along the way, printing techniques have improved and edges softened.  Not surprisingly, the best work of the best artists shines whatever the period.

Today, when much of humankind seems more removed from nature than ever, birds remind us that we are still part of the natural world.  Their history and ours are intertwined.  Their beauty and vivacity raise the spirits and gladden the heart and artists will ever attempt to capture their magic.

This is an extract from A Brush with Birds: Australian Bird Art from the National Library of Australia published by the NLA ($29.95)

Winged Wonders as published in PDF form