Retro: Sheffield’s incredible Illustrated Aviary

Illustrated Aviary, Millennium Gallery: Blue Crane, or Heron, John James Audubon, engraved by Robert Havell.
Illustrated Aviary, Millennium Gallery: Blue Crane, or Heron, John James Audubon, engraved by Robert Havell.
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An exhibition at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield takes a fascinating look back at the history of bird illustration.

Exhibition curator Louise Pullen has had the difficult task of choosing the pictures to display from the Ruskin collection for The Illustrated Aviary at the Millennium Gallery.

In total, 7,000 illustrations were originally collected by Thomas Campbell Eyton, a 19th-century naturalist, who made them into giant scrapbooks.

Louise said that they have never really been catalogued before and are on display in Sheffield for the first time.

The 80 illustrations on display, some of which are very large-scale, were made for well-off collectors and for scientists to study. They date from the 1750s to the 1880s.

Thomas Campbell Eyton often cut up different prints and put parts together to illustrate scientific observations he was making.

Louise said: “We wanted to celebrate the illustration of birds as a crossover between illustration and science. They are really some quite wonderful illustrations by some amazing artists, primarily for a scientific audience.

“They then became more and more luxurious for rich families who wanted them for glorified coffee table books.”

They were mostly drawn from dead specimens as most people could not hope to travel in those days to far-flung parts of the world where the birds were found. Prints or engravings were made that were then watercoloured by hand in brilliant, rich colours.

Some stuffed birds from the collection are on display as well. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a spectacular, huge piece of textile art by Leeds-based artist Mister Finch, which was inspired by the specimens in the collection.

Using dead birds had its difficulties, said Louise. “Sometimes the artists worked from hearsay and only had badly stuffed specimens, which affected their accuracy.”

She gave the example of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who made models of dinosaurs for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and his illustration of the crocodile bird.

“The picture shows a bird walking into the mouth of a crocodile to pick the meat off its teeth,” said Louise. “This is a fallacy that dates back to the ancient Greek, Herodotus.”

One of the birds, a tiny green woodpecker, belonged to Alfred Wallace, a famous Victorian scientist. He was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.

One of the best-known artists whose work is on show is Edward Lear, famed for his nonsense poems. He also worked as a scientific bird illustrator.

Sections of the exhibition celebrate exploration and progress in science, British birds, the work of women illustrators and the differences between artists from different countries.

Another section looks at the conservation of birds.

As well as pictures showing birds that have died out, such as the dodo, others refer to success stories, like the California condor.

Although still one of the most endangered US birds, it has been brought back from the brink of extinction by breeding captive birds and releasing them into the wild.

The strangest exhibit is a beautifully-painted cigar box, which is full of tiny stuffed hummingbirds, each wrapped in newspaper, from the Museums Sheffield natural history collection.

They were bought in Brazil in 1898 by S J Young, who worked for Spear & Jackson in Sheffield. Louise thinks they may have been a strange souvenir of a working trip.

The Illustrated Aviary is at the Millennium Gallery until June 14. Entry is free.