Thousands of birds in hundreds of books
Exhibition from 29 august 2014 through 4 january 2015
As long as there have been humans, they have been fascinated by birds. Cave paintings of birds dating back some 40,000 years may be found all over the world. The fascination is undoubtedly related to the fact that birds can do something that humans have only just learned: they can fly.
The earliest written sources about birds date from Classical Antiquity. Especially the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) and the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (c.23-79 AD) have written about birds. Their works remained the most important sources for the study of birds until the end of the medieval period. Authors such as the poet Jacob van Maerlant often refer to Aristotle or Pliny in order to give authority to their works.
Birds are found in medieval manuscripts in a practical context, for instance as a source for medicine. The study of birds as a species develops in the Renaissance. Classical authors continue to influence ornithology after the Middle Ages, but in the sixteenth century scientific observations become increasingly important. In addition, printed books allow for more and better illustrations. A number of authors make efforts to classify the different species of birds.
In the seventeenth century the scientific revolution gains momentum. This is reflected in bird books: ornithologists no longer copy (classical or medieval) sources, and they openly doubt the existence of birds of which no observations are known. The Englishmen John Ray and Francis Willughby travel through Europe, collecting data on countless birds, which they present systematically in Ornithologiae libri III (1672), The book is considered to be the origin of both field ornithology (the systematic recording of observations of live animals) and the scientific classification of birds.
Voyages of discovery and overseas trade result in descriptions and species of exotic birds coming to Europe. They are eagerly bought by collectors who put them in their cabinets of curiosities and publish their images. In the nineteenth century, especially equipped expeditions systematically chart the fauna and thusthe birds in distant lands.
In the books, woodcuts are replaced by copper engravings that can show more detail, especially when they are coloured. With the coming of lithography and other illustration techniques in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the options to faithfully picture birds increase even more.
The most beautiful bird book ever to have been published in The Netherlands is without doubt Nederlandsche vogelen. In 1770, the Amstedam Publisher Jan Christiaan Sepp (1739-1811), together with the remonstrant vicar and amateur biologist Cornelis Nozeman, started work on a book that was to contain all birds that lived in The Netherlands. A life size image was made of each bird, and Nozeman added a description of the bird, its environment and its behaviour. He incorporated data from earlier authors, but also studied birds in the field.
Nederlandsche vogelen appeared in instalments. As soon as a bird was found, a drawing was made and Nozeman made a description of a few pages. When they were finished, the drawing was transferred to a copperplate so that it could be printed. The prints were then one by one coloured by hand. After fifty instalments, the publisher printed a title page so that buyers could have them bound. The consequence of this procedure was that the birds are in random order. The fifth and last volume was not finished until 1829; by then, Nozeman had been dead for a long time. After him, the Amsterdam publisher Martinus Houttuyn became the editor, and later Jacob Coenraad Temminck.
The book contains 250 plates in which some 200 different species of birds are described. Nederlandsche vogelen was one of the most expensive book sof its time. Buyers treated it with care, which is why many copies have survived. In October 2014, a full size reprint will be published.
Birds as inspiration for book art
Through the years, birds have been an inspiration for artists. Birds are found on book bindings, wherethey may refer to the content of the book, but also may appear as decoration, without additional meaning. Birds often occur in family arms, that were stamped on bindings to show that a book belonged to the library of an illustrious house.
Until the nineteenth century, it was common in academic circles to carry a nicely bound booklet forfriends and colleagues to make drawings and write quotes and poems in. In these ‘alba amicorum’, birds are found as well. Often they are drawn after nature, like doves that symbolise love, or the peacock whose beautiful tail feathers represent pride. The fall of Icarus stands for man’s hubris: flying is reserved for birds.
Theo van Hoytema(1863-1917) was especially inspired by nature. In his free work and his applied graphic design, but also in his interior and furniture designs, mainly animals are depicted. Birds, or ‘Pietjes’, as he called them himself, take pride of place. Between 1891 and 1904 he illustrated five picture books with birds in a leading part. Het leelijke jonge eendje from 193 has become the most famous.
The well-designed bird
In bibliophile editions, many birds may be spotted, either minutely executed or much abstracted. Birds are shown using many techniques, such as woodcut, wood engraving, etching, stencil, lithography and even paper art.
The woodcuts by G.W. Dijsselhoff represent the ideals of De Nieuwe Kunst. The Dutch variety of art nouveau was strongly influenced by nature, but did not slavishly copy it. Birds like cocks and peacocks are very recognisable, as opposed to the other birds in the room. Maurits Escher made his regular field division of birds in woodcut, resulting in a refined pattern of lines. Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman used stencils for his birds, where cut-out forms were filled in with an ink roller on an empty sheet of paper. The lithographs of Georges Braque take abstraction another step further. Much detail, however, is shown in a completely fictitious bird. The bird Krips ‘O Kraps, from one of Cees Buddingh’s Gorgelrijmen, was built from hundreds of loose elements from the type case.
A separate showcase is devoted to one of the most famous birds from world literature: The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. This poem was first published in a magazine in 1845; an illustrated edition appeared a year later. Until today, it remains a rewarding text for illustrators. Especially as a separate text, The Raven is published in bibliophile editions from Leidschendam to Ra’anana.
Birds for everyone
Birds are no less fascinating in the twenty-first century than they were before. We care for them, we enjoy them and we eat them. The result is countless books: on breeding race birds, on keeping birds in aviaries and on how to identify birds. There are also many books on cooking with birds.
Before the invention of telegraphy, carrier pigeons were used for quick and reliable communication. Today, the uniqe quality of pigeons to find their home from a distance of more than a thousand kilometres is used in races. The love of pigeon-fanciers for their animals is legendary.
Aviaries existed as early as classical Antiquity. Wealthy Romans were very fond of exotic birds. In the Middle Ages, birds such as falcons were kept because of their practical uses, but in the seventeenth century the keeping of birds became a hobby. Today, many people keep songbirds in their houses and gardens. Birds from around the world populate large cages.
Bird watching as a hobby dates from the nineteenth century. Bird watchers come in different shapes and sizes; they sometimes appear on the news when they point their telelenses at rare species. Most bird watchers apply themselves to the birds in their neighbourhoods.
The amount of chicken we eat in The Netherlands is reflected in a large number of cookery books. Together, they make a small cultural history. At one time, chicken with pineapple was considered exotic; nowadays, tasty chicken dishes from all over the world have become part of our daily diet. For many people, the love of birds goes through the stomach.
A bird’s eye view of children’s books
The Koninklijke Bibliotheek possesses more than 200,000 children’s books, and thousands of them contain all sorts of birds, sometimesbecause of their beauty, sometimes because they serve an educational goal.
The oldest children’s books are from the eighteenth century, but with the rise of new illustration techniques and cheap paper in the nineteenth century the children’s book became a substantial market. Even before that time, catchpenny prints were sold: cheap sheets with woodcuts or engravings and short captions. Some catchpenny prints give an overview of differentsorts of birds, taking the phenomenon ‘bird’ rather broadly: every now and then, one encounters a phoenix, griffin, butterfly or bat. The diversity of birds is also used in AB books, in which images of birds are combined with a moral lesson for the reading child. And of course they regularly appear in nursery rhymes.