Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick was originally published in an over-sized, luxury edition but is now available in a much smaller (about 6″ by 5.5″), more affordable, twenty-dollar edition. Despite the small size there is a ton of content in the 336 page book. It is gorgeously illustrated with 300 well-chosen images from London’s Natural History Museum and, though the text is tiny, is jam-packed with information about the history of ornithological art. The images span the centuries, from medieval woodcuts to nearly the present day, and include all the ornithological luminaries one would expect in such a volume, plus some that this birder had never heard of before!
Whether one likes art, birds, or both this book is bound to be of interest. One can follow the evolution of bird art through the text and plates and those who already have at least a passing knowledge of bird artists will find many familiar names. To be honest though, some of my favorite images in the book are the watercolors done in the late 1700s by an artist I had never heard of, Sarah Stone, who, though given a scant paragraph’s attention in the text, is represented by at least eleven plates of her work. Her take on the Guianan Cock-of-the Rock is gorgeous, and both her Ostrich and Greater Flamingo make up what they lack in realism with an excess of character.
There are two negatives about the book that I would be remiss not to mention. First, most likely due to the small size of the edition I have in hand, some of the plates are cut off by the edge of the page. Never is it a major disaster, but, nonetheless, when one looks at a plate in a book of art one would like to see the entire plate! The other drawback is that the artwork is all drawn from one source: London’s Natural History Museum. Of course, the artwork is amazing, but it is frustrating when Louis Agassiz Fuertes, described in the text as “the most outstanding of all American bird painters since Audubon,” is left with just textual descriptions: none of his paintings appear in the book. This is not the only omission, but it is understandable that London’s Natural History Museum does not own every work of bird art that one might wish to see in the volume.
Despite these two issues, I would wholeheartedly endorse the $20 volume I have had the pleasure of perusing. I learned a great deal about the history of bird art and the text is made lively by anecdotes about the artists and the trials and tribulations that they endured. I am sure any birder or artist would enjoy this book as an inexpensive gift with the holidays coming up, and the volume will surely fit snugly into a Christmas stocking.