Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Parrots

Plyctolophus leadbeateri. Leadbeater's cockatoo

Plyctolophus leadbeateri
Leadbeater's cockatoo

Plyctolophus sulphureus. Lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo

Plyctolophus sulphureus
Lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo

Plyctolophus galeritus. Greater sulphur-crested cockatoo

Plyctolophus galeritus
Greater sulphur-crested cockatoo

Plyctolophus rosaceus. Salmon-crested cockatoo

Plyctolophus rosaceus
Salmon-crested cockatoo

Calyptorhynchus baudinii. Baudin's cockatoo

Calyptorhynchus baudinii
Baudin's cockatoo

Lorius domicella. Black-capped lory

Lorius domicella
Black-capped lory

19th century colour lithography of parrot

Macrocercus aracanga
Red and yellow maccaw

Macrocercus ararauna. Blue and yellow maccaw

Macrocercus ararauna
Blue and yellow maccaw

Psittacara patagonica. Patagonian parrakeet-maccaw

Psittacara patagonica
Patagonian parrakeet-maccaw

Macrocercus hyacinthinus. Hyacinthine maccaw

Macrocercus hyacinthinus
Hyacinthine maccaw

Palæornis melanura. Black-tailed parrakeet

Palæornis melanura
Black-tailed parrakeet

Palæornis torquatus. Roseringed parrakeet. Yellow variety

Palæornis torquatus
Roseringed parrakeet. Yellow variety

Platycercus palliceps. Paleheaded parrakeet

Platycercus palliceps
Paleheaded parrakeet

Platycercus pileatus. Red-capped parrakeet

Platycercus pileatus
Red-capped parrakeet

Psittacula kuhlii. Kuhl's parrakeet

Psittacula kuhlii
Kuhl's parrakeet

The second youngest of twenty one children, Edward Lear (1812-1888) was raised by his sister and received little in the way of formal education. He was afflicted with both asthma and epilepsy and the latter condition was a source of shame throughout his life. It's tempting to speculate that his health problems were a trigger for the young Lear to avidly pursue so personal an activity as sketching and painting.

Economic reality also played a significant role in the self-taught artist's development. Lear's father was sentenced to a term in the debtor's prison after some disastrous stock speculation and Edward was virtually forced to obtain an income from his sketching by the time he had reached his mid-teens. He coloured drawings for prints, screens and fans for shops and printsellers, drew morbid pictures of diseased people for doctors, taught nature sketching to occasional pupils and sold his own drawings to any paying customer.

Lear's big break came at the age of eighteen when he was taken on as a draughtsman by William Harvey at the Zoological Society in London. The job gave him access to captive living birds and, amazingly, given his age and the logistics involved, he immediately began planning and sketching for a book devoted to parrots (family Psittacidae).

Over a two year period, Lear became proficient in the new illustration printing technique of lithography, thus saving money normally required for employing copperplate engravers. He produced hundreds of sketches of birds from which a final selection of forty two images were chosen for a monograph serving a subscriber base of one hundred and seventy five customers. The book would be the first folio publication in England to be illustrated by lithographs and also the first ornithological work devoted to a single family of birds. Lear also prepared a colour palette key for artists to hand-colour the black and white lithographic plates.

The balance of critical opinion regards Lear's book on parrots to be the finest ever published on that bird family and among the greatest ornithological works ever produced. It's not just because such an audacious project was successfully completed by so young a character, or that the subject matter was drawn so sensitively and with great scientific accuracy and naturalistic detail, but because the exceptional quality of Lear's plates - drawn, wherever possible, from living specimens - would significantly influence the work of two contemporary artists, John James Audubon and John Gould, perhaps the greatest ornithological illustrators of all time. Both Audubon and Gould would employ Lear during the 1830s to assist in their projects and it was only failing eyesight that foreshortened Lear's bird illustrating career.

Lear would of course go on to great fame with his 'nonsense' writing (The Owl and the Pussycat etc.), to which he contributed illustrations; and there were a number of other natural history books he worked on, but his ability to render the fine detail, as he had accomplished with the parrots, had all but left him by the middle of the 1840s. There are fewer than one hundred copies of the parrot book in existence which makes it a very valuable and coveted work.
"Lear’s work as a natural history draftsman lasted little more than the decade of the 1830s, until his eyesight became too weak for the detail of feathers and scales. The Psittacidae is his finest achievement. Lear conveyed with telling sympathy the carriage of a bird, the grasp of the claws, the tilt of the head, its grave, curious, or quizzical expression (noteworthy beaks later reappear as remarkable noses on the limerick people, who are as distinctive as his parrots for their idiosyncratic posture and curious poses). Lear was exceptionally sensitive to the structure and function of features such as the parrot’s beak and the turtle’s jaws (the latter is evident in his lithographs of turtles and tortoises in Thomas Bell’s 'A Monograph of the Testudinata')." [source]


Elatia Harris said...

These are moving and beautiful -- I had no idea.

Rouchswalwe said...

The Maccaw prints are especially stunning. Thank you for posting these.

Junior said...

the one on my shoulder likes the full blue one and asks if it has a phone number

ahuva said...

Wow, really stunning! I love the background you provide- kudos

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