When painters spread their wings and fly

In December last year, a copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America became the world's most expensive book when it sold for over £7m, thus drawing brief attention to an art form that has never quite received the recognition it deserves.

Yet as fine as Audubon's work is, (black-and-white images were painstakingly hand-coloured by the artist himself, using watercolours softened with
chalk and pastel for the finest plumage), I find many of his images awkward and not altogether lifelike.

This is a heresy for lovers of bird illustration but, when I look at an Audubon plate, I do not need to be told that his subjects were dead when he painted them, (he used very fine shot, to minimise damage); I can see it in the odd attitudes of his burrowing owls, or the crazy posture of his American swan.

This is unfair, of course: most earlier-19th-century bird artists worked from dead specimens, or even skins, and some of Audubon's plates (the exquisite blue jays, the solitary vireo, the great American shrike) are among the most beautiful bird paintings ever made.

Yet, there were others who created extraordinary images of avian life and, to my mind, one of the finest is Joseph Wolf, a German émigré who arrived in London in 1848 and set about revolutionising the art. As C E Jackson notes, in Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography, Wolf was "the first artist who made a successful full-time career of painting animals and birds, doing that and nothing else.

He achieved this because he knew and loved the birds as wild, living, free creatures. The earlier artists had gone to the museums and copied specimens . . . Wolf went out into the countryside and looked at the birds in their natural habitats."

Crucially, this change of practice shifted the focus from the painter's decorative skills to the actuality of birds in their natural state. Now, as well as being accurate depictions of living creatures in their own habitat, bird paintings were also glad celebrations of avian life. Or as Wolf himself
put it, "Life, life, life, that's the great thing."

Sadly, bird illustration has always been an under-appreciated art. Yet I find the work of such painters as Wolf, George Edward Lodge, Archibald Thorburn, or the now entirely forgotten Claude Wilmott Wyatt deeply moving.

To make their best images, these painters did more than merely sit and observe; indeed, it is hard not to think of them as shapeshifters of sorts who, for an hour or so, actually became birds - so much so that their subjects seem on the point of spreading their wings and flitting away,
out of the picture and into some other place where most of us cannot follow.

Bird life

This might sound fanciful but looking at a painting by Wolf or Wyatt, I think of T S Eliot's bird in "Burnt Norton", as it wavers between inciting us to find some further, possibly transcendent condition and warning us off, knowing that "human kind cannot bear very much reality".

This seems to me no less than a statement of fact: reality doesn't really suit us and, all too often, the human-bird encounter turns into a tragedy where arrant clumsiness overrides bewildered grace.

Many of the birds Audubon painted are now extinct and still we go on killing them, more or less casually, with our pesticides and wires and machinery.

It may be a cliché, but cliché or not, I fear the day when the only marsh harriers or peregrines I can look at are in paintings by Joseph Wolf or Bruno Liljefors - and no matter how beautiful those works may be, life is the great thing, life, life, life.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism