An Armchair Bird-Lover's Guide

Two lavish books provide illustration and commentary on the habits and habitats of birds around the world

MASTERPIECES OF BIRD ART: 700 YEARS OF ORNITHOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION. By Roger F. Pasquier and John Farrand, Jr. Foreword by Roger Tory Peterson, Abbeville Press, 261 pp., $85WILD BIRDS OF AMERICA: THE ART OF BASIL EDE. With Contributions by H.R.H. The Prince Philip, The Honorable Walter H. Annenberg, Jack Warner, and Robert McCracken Peck, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 125 pp., $75 A BIRD in the bush is worth two in a book these days, but often the bird in the book is all we have. "Masterpieces of Bird Art" traces 700 years of bird illustration, noting along the way the various birds that have become extinct since they were depicted by artists. Others are disappearing fast, so we may be grateful for artists who have recorded them accurately. It turns out that not all records are correct. Sometimes artists had only dead birds to paint without having ever seen what the birds did in life or even looked like alive. Other times, artists had to reconstruct the bird's appearance from written or verbal accounts. Maybe, as happened with Lebrecht Reinold at the end of the 18th century, the artist confused what he thought he saw (a southern African peregrine) with whatever he actually did see (probably a jaeger), added an invention or two, and produced a fiction, in this case a "Crested Peregrine Falcon" (see Reinold's painting to the left at the bottom of the page). There is no such bird. THE authors of this book point out where other artists have gone wrong, a useful service. Even more helpful are comments on the habits and habitats of birds around the world that many of us may never see for ourselves. Accuracy in bird illustrations is challenging in itself, but producing illustrations for books is also an art, as Roger Tory Peterson observes in his foreword to "Masterpieces of Bird Art." During the 700 years covered, the technical processes of painting, drawing, and book production have altered the ways in which artists have depicted birds. It is interesting to follow these changes as illustrated by the authors' selections and explanations. Much wonderful bird art is excluded because it was not done for books. The material chosen by the authors comes from the European tradition only. Oriental books, albums, and scrolls are not considered, with only two exceptions. That's a pity, since some Japanese and Chinese bird painting that could be considered illustration is superb. The emphasis in this particular book is on the Western record of scientific inquiry. "Wild Birds of America" more or less follows that tradition. The paintings reproduced in the book are a selection from the larger collection, as yet incomplete, of all the wild birds of America, which was commissioned by Jack Warner, chairman of Gulf States Paper Corporation. He tells of his intense desire to see the birds shown in action and of the artist's accommodation, a remarkable partnership. Artist Basil Ede explains his side of the story, too, and adds pages of his preliminary drawings and field sketches so we can see how he proceeds. This behind-the-scenes aspect of the book enhances one's appreciation of the finished work, which is beautiful and accurate. Ede's work shows some influence of John James Audubon, whose "The Birds of America" is an all-time favorite among bird enthusiasts. And there have been other equally impressive compendia of American birds, especially the work of painter and naturalist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. With "Wild Birds of America," however, Americans have the opportunity to see how an excellent contemporary British artist can rival these classics. "Masterpieces of Bird Art" also complements the classic reference books from various countries and centuries with which bird enthusiasts are already familiar, enhancing their appreciation for the production methods and beauty of bird illustration.

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