The Unfeathered Bird – Katrina Van Grouw
This book is not an anatomy of birds, states the first line of the introduction to The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina Van Grouw. What is it then? It is a beautifully illustrated book dealing with ornithology or it is a gracefully annotated picture book. In fact it’s both; a convergence of art and science – the science is authoritative and expressive; complex structures, forms and functions are revealed and explained by the author who is familiar and comfortable with the technical detail of anatomy.
The way that birds move, and especially fly, takes a great deal of explaining (and reciprocal understanding). In this book complicated mechanical processes are described in eloquent prose, at every step supplemented by perfectly rendered illustrations. The book is produced beautifully on superb quality paper which is a joy to handle.
There is a distinct flavour to the artwork, classically crafted and hauntingly reminiscent of Gothic images – there will be the inevitable comparisons with these drawings and those of the great historical masters, and deservedly so. But Van Grouw looks to emulate no-one; she draws in her own way – exquisitely! For over two decades she has worked predominantly in subdued and low-key hues, painting with charcoals and other muted media, toiling away at her craft. The works in this fascinating book are the culmination of this extensive and highly successful career. Van Grouw’s use of monochrome or, occasionally slightly tinted drawings with highlighted areas, brings a sombre feel to the artwork – a respectful solemnity for the extinguished lives of the birds being depicted. And she handles the media with expert precision and dexterity.
The technical aspects of the book are softened and accessible. The book follows a systematic order and threads of convergent evolution are woven seamlessly into the story of the birds.
There’s a fascinating and curious paradox in the way the birds are displayed on the page. There is (of course) no doubt that these specimens have been stripped of all semblance of life; many are presented as skeletons, some still have musculature in place - yet it is the skill of the artist that the subjects are decidedly more vibrant than many conventionally realist paintings of fully-feathered birds. The artist’s decision to re-create lifelike poses for her subjects removes any stuffiness in the compositions. One piece in particular (the Eurasian sparrowhawk with its blue tit prey) illustrates this dichotomy; the attacker’s posture brimming with latent activity whilst the dead skeletal blue tit could not be more lifeless! The character of birds is expressed deftly – a glance at the parrots leaves us in no doubt as to their captivating personalities. The underwater view of the red-throated diver is an exceptionally elegant piece of work, incorporating the underside of floating lily-pads and a tiny fish skimming along the (inferred) water surface.
The most striking and enjoyable aspect to The Unfeathered Bird is the way the text works with the images. Often visual artists – usually reliant on creating images as our primary mode of communication, often fail to achieve a similar level of quality with our written efforts. Not so in this case. Rarely does a book combine written and visual content so completely. Prose comes just as readily to this author as the images do to her as the artist; and all combined in one sumptuous offering. The passages are a delight to read and would stand up well with even the most rudimentary of illumination; when fortified by drawing of such sublime quality the result is astonishing. The writing has moments of wit and pathos, whilst underpinning this is a dialogue full of chatty authority. The balance is perfect and I found myself flicking between images and prose subconsciously; a wonderful interplay of balancing counterpoints.
The author reminds us of historical follies and aberrations. The hunting and collecting trade gets a mention and there is a moment of pure brutality; “. . . notice the violence sustained at the back of the skull where the bird was bludgeoned to death.” There are no prizes for guessing the species being described here, although sadly, it could be one of many.
A day watching fully-feathered birds in the field rarely disappoints, nor fails to surprise; this book of unfeathered birds is no different in this respect. For instance; did you know that hornbills wear make-up? . . . or that toucans are likely to tire and drown if they attempt to fly over watercourses just a teensy-bit too wide?
Crammed with information, regularly poetic and often poignant, insightful, illuminative and educational; no doubt, yet it is the drawings which make this publication the stand-out, stand-alone volume that it is, and which will ultimately and absolutely make this book the seminal work it seems destined to be. Ranging from diagrammatic illustrations to richly-textured interpretative observations, each is executed with clinical assuredness and delicate sensitivity. The enjoyment of this book is easy, but to allow it to reveal the full depth of its rich textures, acute literary and artistic meaning will give the owner many years of pure pleasure.
As Van Grouw defiantly states in her introduction; “This book is not an anatomy of birds”. However, yet incidentally, it is. But it is more than that. It reveals aspects of birdlife which would remain hidden to most of us; it weaves tales of ornithological endeavours and vandalisms and, at its heart, connects art with science and history. And in a manner which tantalises and delights in a way only the great works of art can.
This is the quintessential labour of love; over 25 years in the conception, drawing and writing. It is a genuine life-work and will surely earn itself and its author a merited place in the history of the Art of the Natural World.
The Unfeathered Bird is published by Princeton University Press – ISBN978-0-691-15134-2