Science Art
Cave Walls


Comments on the book: Press Reviews--The Ibis Tim Birkhead
.The Ibis, Volume 151 Issue 1 (January 2009)  Pages 219-220
.....Published: January 2009 (Published Online: 18 Dec 2008)

This novel and fascinating volume is about ornithological art that 'has science as an orienting component'. Bird art has been extremely popular since the 18th century when the first lavishly illustrated and often oversized books were produced. Those of Albin, Vieillot, Gould, Audubon and others were successful precisely because their magnificent colour illustrations did something extraordinary to the viewer's brain: they pandered to people's lust for birds, they fed the imagination, and last and probably least, they provided a scientific identification of the bird.

Humans, Nature, and Birds is partly a history of bird art for it spans the Paleolithic images of owls (Strigiformes) etched into the soft rock wall of the Chauvet Cave, France, through a page of a monk's drawing book from the 1300s, to the 21st century images by one of the authors. The book also contains a valuable timeline (Appendix 1) that skilfully links 'art, technology and study of birds'. Yet this book is much more than a history of ornithological illustration, it is an enthusiastic and enlightening account of the diverse ways our understanding of bird biology has been enhanced by art. Not only is the concept novel, the design of the book is also unusual, set out as a 'virtual gallery' in which the reader is asked to imagine being in a series of rooms filled with some of the most diverse and exciting bird art imaginable. Oh that such a gallery existed! The images collected here would make a wonderful exhibition, and the book, its catalogue. In the absence of the real thing, the book provides us with a remarkable set of images together with an enlightening text that describes the art ('The Narrative') and provides the link with science ('Viewing the Science' or 'The Role of Science Art').

Two examples will give you a feel for the scope. On page 78, we see Paul Klee's Twittering Machine painted in 1922 – a childlike illustration that might be one of those mechanical music boxes in which one or more model birds pop out and 'sing'. Beneath it on the same page, Darryl Wheye has reproduced Klee's birds in black and white and added a sonagram to draw attention to the way the birds' heads imitate 'the phrasing and frequency of a vocal exchange, or as perhaps the heads of musical notes'. On page 141 is David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl's fabulous oil painting of a busy Blackcock Tetrao tetrix lek at dawn. This must be among the very first closely observed studies of bird behaviour, painted in 1675, a few years before the publication of John Ray's ground-breaking encyclopaedia The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1676 Latin version, 1678 English version), in which – intriguingly – there is no mention of lekking behaviour.

The book is laid out with an upper and a lower 'gallery', within which is a series of 'rooms', each one with a different theme: birds as icons, birds as resources, birds as teaching tools, birds as a means to understanding biology, science art, from real public venues to virtual ones, and so on. After a brief introduction to each gallery, each of the 52 double-page spreads comprises an image and an account. The quality of production is very high, and the dimensions of the book (18 × 26 cm) make this very much something to read rather than a coffee-table book. It sounds trite, but anyone with an interest in bird art and seeking aesthetic stimulation should have this extraordinary book.

Birds are the embodiment of nature, as Chris Bacon, one of the contemporary artists included in this book, says. Birds have a special place in our lives. Not least because, collectively, they are the canary in the global coal mine. The scientific monitoring of bird populations, motivated largely by a love of birds, provides a sensitive and accurate barometer of the quality of life. This book is a celebration of that fact.

© 2008 Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy