These days, as the sparrows and starlings so common in my youth are growing scarce, there’s less need for a rarity like the osprey or butcher bird (the red-backed shrike) to raise awareness of the plight of birds, and with Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day you might say that birds are in (or on) the air — but then they would be. The flightless varieties, such as the dodo, have always been in greater danger, unless they could run very fast. Birds are synonymous with flight, and as such are a potent symbol and embodiment of many of humanity’s hopes and dreams. They connote both the human and the divine spirit through their soaring freedom of movement, and their linking of earth and sky (often also water). Birds can represent our souls, or stand for wisdom and the power of thought. They have visual beauty, make music, hold the secrets of the universe (‘a little bird told me’); so of course we kill them — what else would you expect?
That doesn’t mean we don’t love them, as Oscar Wilde has shown us, and as the growing popularity of garden bird feeding and watching demonstrates. But tastes have changed, and these days you have to have a licence to sell stuffed birds, while taxidermic museum displays have gone right out of fashion. This makes the new show at Norwich Castle an even braver affair, for it attempts to reassess the stuffed bird as well as the bird in art and culture. Thus several stuffed birds are included in wall-mounted or cabinet displays, though the majority are taken out of their glass cases and arranged atmospherically along the top of the section dividers: an inspired piece of exhibition design. Above the entrance to the section devoted to ‘Migrants and Ocean Travellers’, an enormous spread-winged albatross presides, while nearby a spoonbill peers quizzically down its spatulate nose at us.
The exhibition is divided into six sections or themes, beginning with an introduction that features the fossil archaeopteryx, Roman pedestal cups with duck handles, a famous Holbein painting, Darwin’s egg (cracked), a bird pincushion embroidered by prisoner Sylvia Pankhurst, and an explanation of the Norwich system of taxidermy. Here, too, is Cedric Morris’s stirring indictment of DDT pollution — a field of dead birds entitled ‘Landscape of Shame’. In the second section, given over to ‘Predators and Prey’, ironically Morris is in more genial mood, with a lovely family group of French partridges. But here, too, are the killing birds: a pair of peregrines by Francis Barlow next to Audubon’s dramatic wing-shuffle of ‘Hawk Pouncing on Partridges’. There’s a trio of Eric Hosking’s celebrated action-shot photos of barn owls, a cabinet of owl ceramics (which would have benefitted from something by that owl-fancier Ivor Abrahams) including a Picasso, an Athenian drinking bowl from 480 BC and, by far the wittiest, a 17th-century Staffordshire slipware jug. ‘Birds and Landscape’ comes next, starring a new painting of a heron by Maggi Hambling, fruitlessly fishing in the polluted Thames and with what looks like an old French letter dangling from its bill, juxtaposed with such intriguing artefacts as a stork-bone flute and a flamingo’s-foot walking stick. (Was this where Lewis Carroll got his idea for flamingo croquet mallets?) There’s a radically simplified but beautiful Babylonian duck weight from 2000 BC (which would have looked very well paired with John Skeaping’s ‘Bird’ of 1928), a 1905 coloured woodcut of peewits by Allen Seaby, and instead of flying ducks up the wall there’s a stepped process of decoy ducks, from merganser to smew.
‘Introducing the Exotic’ shows the lengths we will go to for self-adornment, not having much plumage of our own: a whole snow bunting wired on to a rigid fan, a purple bolero jacket of dyed ostrich feathers, 1910 boudoir boots trimmed with ostrich. There’s a fabulous case of more than 140 tiny hummingbirds, various bits of fine embroidery and a commanding watercolour of a guinea fowl by Tory Lawrence. In section 5, there are evocative vignettes of water-birds by Thomas Bewick and one of my favourite Arnesby Brown paintings. Section 6 examines the ‘Realms of the Spirit’ through the more imaginative interpretations of Mary Newcomb, Graham Sutherland, Samuel Palmer, Ernst and Picasso.
The canaries are one of the show’s pleasures, particularly the Crested Norwich variety, extravagantly fringed like one of the Beatles in the early days, or the painter and poet David Jones. Norwich City Football Club is known as The Canaries, and local celebrity cook Delia Smith is joint principal shareholder in the team along with her husband. Delia commissioned Craigie Aitchison (1926–2009) to paint a picture of canaries to celebrate the club — a fitting choice as Aitchison was one of the most enigmatic and memorable of bird painters, besides being a brilliant colourist. He also kept canaries, which flew free in his studio (as they did in the studio of John Ward) and nested in an old mattress. Yet there is no sign of an Aitchison painting here — a deeply regrettable absence.
I can see that the selectors might have wanted to choose East Anglian artists over other British, but in that case why not include the ludicrously underrated Colin Self (born Norwich 1941), whose series of etchings ‘A Dead Bird for Craigie’ constitutes a moving tribute to both Aitchison and the songbirds of Norfolk. Self is a superb etcher and his prints would have introduced a different note into the mix, as would the gull drawings of Suffolk resident Jason Gathorne-Hardy. Their work could have been profitably substituted for some of the rather undistinguished illustrators’ that punctuates the exhibition. But to complain that certain things aren’t here is to distract attention from the huge achievement of gathering together what is. The exhibition has been four years in the making and shows evidence of much thought and care in its construction. The accompanying paperback book is not so much a catalogue as a well illustrated guide to the subject of nature, art and culture with special reference to birds. I wasn’t expecting such an impressive exhibition — this is a real event in the museum world, and worth travelling to see.