Andrew Lambirth

Painted, sculpted and stuffed: a history of the bird in art

From Babylonian ducks to Norwich City canaries: Andrew Lambirth admires the bravery of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery’s new survey

‘Hawk Pouncing on Partridges’, c.1827, by John James Audubon [© university of liverpool victoria gallery & museum]

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.

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