Bird's-eye view

Feb 04 2015

The Millennium Gallery’s latest exhibition celebrates the beauty of birds through highlights from a stunning collection of Victorian ornithological studies. Ruskin Curator, Louise Pullen talks about helping these seldom-seen works take flight.

The Illustrated Aviary is open and I’m thrilled to see the birds in all their glory on the Millennium Gallery walls.

The exhibition has been a while in the making. I chose the works from a selection of about 7000 remarkable ornithological prints and drawings which the Victorian enthusiast Thomas Eyton collected (according to witnesses at the time) by the cartload, and placed into scrapbooks. Up until recently Eyton’s enormous collection (now part of the Ruskin Collection) had never been catalogued, so only a few of the works have ever been seen by the public. Thanks to support from a dedicated team of volunteers, we’ve begun researching and cataloguing the works and are now able show a selection of them for the first time, and look forward to having more out in the future.

Illustrated Aviary exhibitionThe works are from the foremost bird artists of the 1800s. John James Audubon, Edward Lear, John and Elizabeth Gould, Joseph Wolf and Jacques Barraband are names that were recognised by both naturalists and the wealthy elite as the ultimate in book illustration. Scientists were exploring further afield and understanding more about birds. New and exciting discoveries were being made and no expense was being spared in illustrating them – Audubon’s sumptuous volume Birds of America, published in sections between 1827 and 1839, was hugely expensive to produce, costing around $120,000 at the time.

It was therefore rather daunting that from 7000 marvellous works I had to select just 75 to display. I chose them for various reasons; I wanted to show how and why they were produced; I also wanted to compare then and now – how writers and audiences observed the birds or approached issues of conservation. Most of all though, I wanted to celebrate these under-valued artists and the beauty and spectacle of the birds they illustrated.

The Illustrated Aviary continues at the Millennium Gallery until 14 June 2015 - entry to the exhibition is free.


Top - page from Monograph of the Trochilidae or Family of Humming-Birds by John Gould, publish 1861 © Museums Sheffield / Guild of St George

Right - Ruskin Curator, Louise Pullen with some of the exhibition displays © Museums Sheffield



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