Be still my beating heart – it is all fluttery & rattling around like hope, Emily Dickinson’s “a thing with feathers – that perches in the soul – ” because I have just spent my lunch break feasting my eyes on Audubon’s Aviary: the Original Watercolors for the Birds of America by Roberta Olson and Marjorie Shelley (Rizzoli Skira) and I am slightly, just a little, overwhelmed with its heavyweight (its more than 3 kilos!) gorgeousness.
I had been finding a book for a customer in the art section and came across this stunning hardback, a collection of the dazzling watercolors that Audubon painted for the famous engravings that most of us are familiar with. Audubon’s Aviary illuminates the original masterpieces and tells the story behind their creation with fresh insights and engaging quotes from his writings. These are startling, lively paintings that link natural history, art, and a respect for the environment. At the time Audubon was working (he began in the early 1820s and finished in the late 1830s), these were revolutionary compositions, depicting all the birds life size – which is why the famous flamingo has its neck bent over in a way it never would in life – it had to fit on the already large piece of paper. They remain some of the most spectacular natural history documents and beautiful works of art ever produced.
If you too are partial to the art of natural history and the great age of European discovery and exploration it will make your heart take flight too. The very best captures not just the beautiful or ugly or peculiar animals and plants but also has a sense of the amazement of the artist, seeing the subject for the first time, and trying to explain with colour and line all they can about this brave new flora and fauna, producing both science and art.
A couple of other books I found just as lovely are Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery by David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton and Rea Alexandratos (Kales Press). This fascinating book is lavishly illustrated, it is an exploration of the natural history artworks of The Royal Collection, held at Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Holyroodhouse. They represent a time (from the 15th to the 18th century) when European knowledge of the world was transformed by voyages of discovery to Africa, Asia, America and the Pacific.
The other book I just had to get for my own bookshelves – and that continues popular with our customers since it came out in 2008 is Birds: The Art of Ornithology (mini edition) by Jonathan Elphick and Robert Prys-Jones (Scriptum Editions). This lovely little (it is only about 15 by 13 cms) hardcover is so appealing, so covetable. It is full of images from the collections at the Natural History Museum, ranging from early decorative but often fanciful images of birds, through more accurate portrayals resulting from exploration and increasing knowledge, to modern attempts at capturing the spirit and freedom of birds. The captions and articles are really informative and amusing.
One of the most appealing things about all these books is that yes, they are full of breathtaking images and useful information but they are also so well designed – as books, as objects, they too make your heart beat faster.