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Celebrating Bird Art and Bird Artists

A review by Sandra Paci

The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art, by Charlotte Sleigh

University of Chicago Press, 2017

256 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14786

First off, let me say that this is an absolutely gorgeous book. I am something of a luddite in my continued preference for physical books over their digital counterparts, and this spectacular volume makes a very good argument for it. It is large but still manageable, perfect for settling down with in your favorite reading chair and savoring repeatedly. The paper stock is thick and pleasing to the touch, and the layout is extremely attractive. Printing and reproduction quality are top-notch. The type in the captions could have been a bit larger for my aging eyes, but this is a minor quibble.

Charlotte Sleigh is Professor of Science Humanities in the Department of History at the University of Kent, England, and the author of AntFrogSix Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology; and Literature and Science, this last title short-listed for the book prize of the British Society for Literature and Science. Most of the text of Sleigh’s new Paper Zoo takes the form of a 35-page introduction, in which she lays out the premise that, for most of us, our first encounters with the animal kingdom are in the pages of books. Sleigh then examines the ways in which illustrated books over the past five centuries have served as our “paper zoos.”

This is a massive subject, one that can hardly be dealt with comprehensively in three dozen pages. Instead of arguing her thesis in the abstract, Sleigh goes on to present us with visual evidence, moving us from one specific artist or artwork to another. While Sleigh’s enthusiasm and expertise are evident throughout, and each example is fascinating in and of itself, I did not come away with the sense of a coherent narrative.

The body of the book is divided into four main sections, each under the rubric of a different adjective. Each section begins with two pages of text, then moves right to the illustrations, which are the heart of the book and its raison d’être. All of these wonderful images are drawn from the prodigious collections of the British Library in London. Honestly, it is hard to find fault with any of Sleigh’s choices: All are beautiful, informative, and thought-provoking. Each reproduction is captioned with the work’s title, the artist’s name, and details of the original publication. This information is followed by a short explanatory paragraph of about 50 words. I would have liked to learn how and when these works came into the British Library’s collection; I seek out this information when I visit museums, but I realize that many readers may not miss it.

The first section, “Exotic,” is, at 72 pages, both the most extensive and the most interesting of the four. Sleigh begins here with mammals, then moves on to marine animals, reptiles, insects, and birds. As the early modern Age of Exploration revealed the vastness and strangeness of the animal kingdom, there was a desire among the wealthy to create menageries of real animals. This same desire could also be satisfied by colored lithographs and illustrated books—Sleigh’s “paper zoos.” The 58 pages headed “Native” deal with creatures closer to home, while the shortest section, “Domestic,” pushes familiarity to its limit, examining insects, birds, and mammals that live in close coexistence with mankind. The final, also relatively short section, “Paradoxical,” concentrates primarily on fantastical sea creatures and insects. One page of notes, a short bibliography, and a three-page index complete the book’s 256 pages.

For those who know even a little about the art of natural history, many of the painters here will already be familiar. Of course, John James Audubon is included, as are Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Mark Catesby, and George Edwards. One of the supreme delights of the book for me, however, is seeing some well-known illustrators and ornithologists treating subjects we are not accustomed to. Fuertes, for instance, best known for his ornithological art, is represented here by drawings of an Ethiopian wolf and Gelada baboons, both from Artist and Naturalist in Ethiopia, the book based on his diaries from the 1936 Field Museum / Chicago Daily News expedition. Catesby is represented by several works from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: a wampum snake (eastern kingsnake), a striped skunk, and an eastern gray squirrel. For the explorer John Barrow, eponym of several birds, Sleigh shows a gnu from an 1804 book on Africa. John Gould, of hummingbird fame, is inevitably represented by works from his famous illustrated ornithological tomes, but we are also shown a western gray kangaroo from his Mammals of Australia.

The wide-ranging diversity of the illustrations gives the reader a broader and more complete sense of the lives and work of these men, who in their expeditions and explorations often considered everything, not merely birds. Those who look closely will also find artwork by other ornithological figures such as William Swainson, Thomas Bewick, and William MacGillivray. And no matter how much one knows about the art of natural history or the history of ornithological illustration, many of the artists and artworks will be new, so there is plenty to discover for everyone.

Anyone interested in natural history illustration will find this book to be a must-have, as will all-around naturalists. Those who are primarily birders will also find much to enjoy, especially if they have an interest in the other creatures they encounter when out looking for birds. It is a bit more difficult to recommend this book whole-heartedly to hard-core birders not that interested in things non-avian. Those readers might be better served by something like Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick or The Magic of Birds by Celia Fisher, which also draws on the collections of the British Library.

Myself, I have already spent many hours curled up with The Paper Zoo, enjoying the wonderful illustrations and learning about both the artists and the creatures they depicted. I know the book will be a favorite for many years to come and will enjoy a prominent place in my library. I expect that the same will be true for many other birders, too.

– Sandra Paci lives in New York City. She works for a gallery in the Chelsea art district, and is an active member of the Brooklyn Bird Club and the Linnaean Society of New York. Paci is the founder of the Facebook group “Birds in Art History.”

Recommended citation:

Paci, S. 2017. Celebrating Bird Art and Bird Artists [a review of The Paper Zoo, by Charlotte Sleigh]. Birding 49.4: 65-66.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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