Drawn from Paradise: the discovery, art and natural history of the Birds of Paradise, by Sir David Attenborough and Errol Fuller

Published on 01 March 2013 in Book reviews

Harper Collins, 2012; hbk, 256pp; 200+ colour illustrations, black-and-white photos; ISBN 978-0-0074-8761-5

Subbuteo code M21442, £30.00

Drawn from Paradise is a glorious romp through the history of the discovery of the Birds of Paradise and their appearance in art in Europe. Ever since the first skins were brought back to Spain in 1522, by Ferdinand Magellan’s ill-fated expedition to circumnavigate the globe, Birds of Paradise have been a source of wonder, fascination and inspiration. The story of their discovery by Europeans has been brilliantly interpreted by the authors, interwoven with fascinating details of explorers, adventurers, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists, all of whom have had some connection with Birds of Paradise. These include well-known scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace and some surprising individuals, including the flamboyant Errol Flynn and the splendidly named Captain Neptune Newcombe Beresford Lloyd Blood! This all makes for a cracking good read, which has made me want to source some of the literature where many of these characters wrote of their exploits in paradise, which doubtless contain more ripping yarns.

While the text in itself is an excellent read, what really makes this book is the magnificent artwork that adorns every single page. The book is crammed with beautiful work, with incredible paintings from the first skins returned to Spain, and continues in chronological order of discovery, with work by some of the greatest bird illustrators of the nineteenth century – Jaques Barraband, Joseph Wolf and John Keulemens to name just a few – right up to contemporary artists including Raymond Ching and William Cooper.

However, it was not just those early naturalists and bird painters that were inspired by these birds. Some notably illustrious artists have incorporated images of Birds of Paradise in their paintings, including Rembrandt, Breughel the Elder and Rubens, and reproductions of some of these paintings have also been included here. Most of the artists in the book had never seen these birds in the wild, and worked solely from stuffed specimens or skins. Consequently, their interpretations were often inaccurate, particularly in portrayals of the outrageous displays and the arrangement of the bird’s plumes. Indeed, it is only comparatively recently that artists such as William Cooper have witnessed these species displaying in the wild, and have been able to portray more accurately their spectacular displays. So extraordinary are they that seeing is truly believing, and one can only imagine the difficulty presented to these early artists when trying to interpret how the complicated arrangements of feathers were utilised. But no matter how inaccurate these earlier paintings were, they are still truly magnificent, forming an important part of the history of discovery, and greatly enhancing this beautiful book. The large format has allowed many of the illustrations to be reproduced on a large scale, which also adds to the enjoyment of the artwork.

Birders and ornithologists looking for a more contemporary and comprehensive review and images of Birds of Paradise may be less enthusiastic, and there are other publications which cater for this. For those with an eye for the romance of early exploration, an interest in history and natural history and a love of art, you are in for a real treat.

Howard Towll

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