Philip Kennedy’s new book, The bird: the great age of avian illustration, is a massive book. It’s the kind of thing that reminds me of going to my grandparents and pulling out their old National Geographic collections full of maps and pictures, so big I had to put them on the floor and hover over them. The bird is a retrospective of the times of John James Audubon, Elizabeth Gould and Edward during the 18e and 19e centuries, during which new printing technology made it possible to reproduce the detailed and colorful illustrations of the artists for the whole world.
It’s a book as fascinating to read as it is to watch, thanks to the biographies of Kennedy’s illustrators, who place these images in their historical context. The reader will discover the history of those who produced these images, while examining the progress of the scientific work that took place alongside them.
The bird is now out of Laurence King. We hopped on Zoom with Philip Kennedy to talk with him about the journey of creating this richly entertaining and informative tome.
Field: It’s a huge book, not only in terms of size, but also in terms of scope. When and how did this project start?
Philippe Kennedy: How it all started was I just got an unexpected email from the publisher and they told me they had this idea for a book and they were curious if I was interested in working with them and setting it up. It happened totally at random. I am based in Dublin. This is where I live. But by the time they emailed me, I was traveling to London and that’s where the publisher is based. And I was like, “Well, it’s a good thing to do and go visit a book publisher and see what it is. “
They explained that they were thinking of preparing this book and that they were really interested in the topic and that they thought maybe I could be a good candidate for it. We just had a conversation. I think we were both on the same page about what kind of book we would both like to see in the world, so it was really good and exciting and I guess that led to that.
I think what was really nice about working on it was that there was a lot of confidence on their part. They were just very happy to let me go and figure out what kind of book I would like to make. I spent a little bit of time learning a lot of things and exploring all of these great illustrations and learning about birds and ornithology and science and that sort of thing.
You are very learned in terms of the history of art and illustration, but I can’t imagine reading everything you had to learn about birding to be able to write The bird. How did this research dive go for you?
This was the thing, initially, that was super intimidating to me, but I kept remembering this from the conversation I had with the publisher at the start – trying to find a book that was really accessible. to people. A place where everyone would follow this journey and just learn all these different things. As long as I was able to maintain this curiosity for myself, I hoped that this curiosity would work for the reader as well. As long as I kind of explore the things that I find interesting, I hope it resonates with the reader. It was my approach.
When it came to doing the research process and putting it all together, I just chased the things that I find most interesting. Fortunately, they also matched me with a bird expert, which allowed them to check the facts for me and make sure everything was right.
The subject of the book is really that wonderful period in history when art and science are the same for a brief moment. It is about this curiosity and the search for understanding the world. I was coming more from the image side of things, but I was also able to try to bring some of that science into there. I guess it’s just curiosity at the heart of it all.
“Curiosity “is such a good word, because that was the cabinet of curiosities era, where literally science and all that Earth science or stuff like that combined into this artistic thing where it’s like, “I’m going to have this cabinet and it’s going to have skulls and it’s going to have taxidermal animals and rocks and all that stuff. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that it has gradually become more art-oriented as a means of documenting scientific discoveries.
I almost got carried away by this idea that these people were just sort of – to excuse the pun – they were kind of flying away. They figured it out as they went along and it echoed my whole process of figuring out how to put all this information together? How do you put these books together?
They are well known for the books they have documenting all of these different birds around the world. To me, the book is like that – it’s like, “Let’s put together as many fascinating and interesting bird illustrations as we can make.” “
My research methodology was to think when someone sat down with the book, what sort of birds is they thinking of? I put together a long, long list of it all, then went through tons and tons and tons of books, made little albums, and made a whole digital library for each of these birds. in particular, then I chose my favorites and then allowed that. to dictate how the book is, and these are my biggest hits of all my favorite bird illustrations from this era.
The book is not just a collection of pictures and ornithological details, although there are many of them. You have these little one-page biographies of many major artists. It took me until I got to his bio to realize, “Oh, is that Edward Lear?” At first I was like “Oh, that’s interesting, there was an Edward Lear working as an illustrator and bird painter at the same time as the tongue twister writer” and then it’s like, “Oh no, no, it’s the same guy. I enjoy the sense of discovery that comes out of all of this, discovering new favorite artists and things I didn’t know in people I already admired.
Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. And a big part of Edward Lear is just that he seems to be such an interesting character. His contribution is so great and he did it in such a short time – in the world of ornithology – and then lived a whole other life after that. All the other characters devote their lives to the natural sciences or more precisely to ornithology. Then you have someone like Edward Lear, who looks like this utter anomaly who from an early age was very successful and really talented.
He created these amazing images and probably spent about 10 years working in this area and then was happy enough to give it all up. I think he went to Italy and did his big tour and then started making limericks and writing all these kinds of things. He’s definitely someone who I think is a really interesting character, but that’s what I found while researching as well. Every person whose work is featured there has a really interesting story, but there are all these little anecdotes or perspectives that you can take from their lives.
Besides those people who dedicate their lives to doing this, you have so many stories from these books where there is this coda of “Their friends finished the book”.
It is a very close-knit group of people. They all even share specimens of the different birds, where this drawing in this book is the same bird from someone’s collection.
During your research, have you taken any trips? Have you been able to see any of these specimens that still exist on their own?
Unfortunately not. With what was going on with the containment and all that, I didn’t really have much time to travel or see anything. Seeing real physical prints was the thing I didn’t have a huge opportunity to do. Last week however, I went to an exhibition here in Dublin and it was the very first time I saw a specific impression in the flesh, and it was truly wonderful – I spent so much time working digitally, it was very satisfying to finally meet them as physical things.
that of Philip Kennedy The bird: the great age of avian illustration is now out of Laurence King.