One hundred and thirty seven

Bird of Paradise

c19th-Century
Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection houses a vast range of images that document social history. Often medically or scientifically based, they are drawings that document generations of curiosity, images of visual understanding, as art becomes reflective of investigation. This historical grounding is perhaps the drive behind our fascination with such images, the interest of discovery that has fuelled them. The exploratory drawings from the Wellcome are often notes of faraway lands, tales of exotic animals, insects and plant-life to show and tell at home. Bird of Paradise is from a time when art still merged with science; reports were story-like and paintings such as this were the equivalent to photography. The outlines of Bird of Paradise give it a clinical approach that allows the image its careful detail. The depiction is certainly simple, but this is part of its clarity; a simplicity that makes it easily accessible and strangely comforting, adding to the nostalgia that seems to surround these documenting images. There is something reassuring in the uncomplicated approach of soft watercolour; it has little tonal variation but colour is vibrant in bright yellow and inky, almost luminous, blacks. The bird glows in these colours, clearly the focal point of the image, while the branch she rests on is appropriately played down. It is drab in comparison in colour, as well as in its overly drawn, less-lucid, design. We can only wonder why the artist decided to include a corner of shadow on the top left, another air of mystery to this beautiful and exotic bird.

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