The 300 Years of Shoes collection - research & making - 1835 - Nebulous in a State of Rest
Sketch - by the House of Embroidered Paper
Early nineteenth century botanical illustrations and engravings are wonderful for their detail, intricacy, accuracy and (just occasionally) for their apparently rather random diversions fact. The images of this bird with it's tail feathers raised and lowered (see below) have become two of my favourites. They now decorate the shoe that will eventually sit as either second or the third in my planned 300 year time line of shoes, spanning 1720-2020.
My early research for The Regency Collection (which the first five pieces from the 300 years of Shoes Collection will be exhibited alongside) involved a visit to the British Museum. Reading this sign in the Enlightenment Gallery helped inform my understanding of the type of world view that climaxed during the period of the formal Regency of which a fascination for both Botany and Zoology was an integral part. This provoked me to search for examples of the sorts of images/illustrations produced by those individuals who knew such passion.
"...As subjects of the zoological artist's attentions, some animals are more equal than others. There is no doubt that bird illustrations predominate -- in quantity, arguably in quality, and certainly in popularity. This reflects the special fascination that birds have had for humans throughout the centuries, owing at least in part to their often colorful and sometimes spectacular plumage, as well as the awe inspired by their mastery of the skies....
...Until the nineteenth century, many ornithological illustrations, usually drawn from skins or mounted specimens, showed a bird perched on a bare branch. Despite some noteworthy exceptions, it was the art of John James Audubon and of John Gould and his colleagues (particularly Josef Wolf) that first consistently imparted motion and life to bird illustrations.
Colored lithographs were an ideal medium to capture the vivid hues of a bird's plumage, with colored engravings running a close second..." - https://digitalcollections.nypl.org
Following this thread I came across books with titles such as:
Please see: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org
For the book in which these particular images featured and information about its author please see: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org tells us the following::
Francois Levaillant was born in Suriname. He was one of the first naturalists to study birds in their natural habitat, and traveled widely in his pursuits. Jaques Barraband is considered the finest French bird painters of the period, and illustrated many of Levaillant's ornithologies.
Le Vaillant, François, 1753-1824 (Author), Barraband, Jacques, 1767?-1809 (Artist)
Dates / Origin:
Date Issued: 1806
Chez Denne le jeune [etc.]
Birds of paradise (Birds), Coraciidae, Toucans, Jacamars
Prints, Illustrations, Books
Statement of responsibility:
"Toutes les figures de cet ouvrage ont ete dessinees d'apres nature par Barraband peintre."
Extent: 2 v. 114 col. pl. (2 double) 56 cm., Bound in full red morocco, gilt, Chromolithographs"
Whilst many of the birds that Jacques Barraband illustrated are recognisable as species we know today nowhere have I been able to find a comprehensive opinion as to where the image of this bird comes from, ie. whether it's a type of Bird of Paradise he had seen but which is now extinct or whether it was created from his imagination, perhaps in the belief that such a bird existed.
The title scripted beneath the pictures poetically adds to this uncertainty, for this bird with its tail feathers lowered is titled:
and with them raised:
At rest the image of 'le nebuleux' can be found on Wikipedia. I've found reproductions advertised for sale. But none of the sites that feature either image specify whether the bird is/was real. Utterly intrigued by it I've made searches online of photographed images of Birds of Paradise and because I cannot find one which shows a bird that looks exactly like this I've had to conclude that this is a bird of the illustrators imagination, created from descriptions rather than from observation and potentially even formed as a conglomeration using features from several real birds. Though I'd happily be proved wrong the intervention of Barrabands' imagination in this way, amidst the raft of extremely accurate renderings of bird life that he made, seems to me to sum up the time in which he lived, when a thirst for knowledge of the natural world prevailed but was in certain ways ultimately limited.
On: http://ruskin.ashmolean.org/collection/8979/object/14676 we read of the place of this image in the collection of Victorian art critic John Ruskin:
"Le Nébuleux, dans l'etat du repos Jacques Barraban
Described by Le Vaillant as a 'nébuleux', shown at rest, the bird perches on a section of bare branch.
The print was taken from the small-paper edition of Le Vaillant's illustrated two-volume work on birds of paradise and other tropical birds: it is pl. 17 in vol...The print was one of a set included in the second section of the ninth cabinet of the Rudimentary Series which, like the Goulds in cabinet eight, were not catalogued infividually: the contents of the cabinet are simply referred to as examples from 'Le Vaillant's work on the Birds of Paradise'. The reasons for this appear in an inscription on no. 223 (in fact a plate a from Nozeman's "Nederlandsche Vogelen"): 'All these plates are only put in temporarily: and un-named; because every bird has half a dozen names, now, and I can't get my catalogue printed, safely, yet, but for drawing practice - they will serve, just now. It is of no use arranging till the frames are all filled'. The numbers allocated to the individual plates in the present catalogue are those inscribed upon them, which presumably reflect their original arrangements in the cabinet.
The second section of the ninth cabinet included 'Exercises in balanced colour and shade, with perfect form'. Ruskin stated that the prints would 'answer my immediate purpose, of giving exercises in colour, with extreme precision of terminal line'. He thought highly of Le Vaillant's work, describing it as 'Far beyond rivalship [...] its plates, exquisitely engraved, and coloured with unwearying care by hand, are insuperable in plume-texture, hue, and action, - spoiled in effect, unhappily, by the vulgar boughs for sustentation' (Love's Meinie, § 87 = XXV.77-79). Indeed, Ruskin explained in his catalogue that these examples from the smaller edition were 'not justly representative of Le Vaillant's book'.
It also seems likely that Ruskin included these plates for the same reason as he included the prints from Gould's "British Birds" (nos 195-200 & 225), which he intended to further his students' relationship with birds and their study: 'I believe even these few examples will be greatly useful in exciting the interest of the younger students in ornithology, and especially in the living birds' (Rudimentary Series catalogues, entry for cabinet eight, section two); such study would be morally improving..."
Then I found this - which I have copied and edited from the link below:
"Birds of paradise arrived with Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Victoria in Seville harbor on September 8, 1522, along with a priceless cargo of spices, but the birds were dead, their gossamer-light, dried skins and long silky feathers all that remained.
Antonio Pigafetta (1491–1534) wrote:
These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colours, like plumes…they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them “bolon dinata” that is divine birds.
In fact the wings had been removed. But the idea that they floated on the breeze nearly had them classified in their own separate order. When the natural historian Francisco López de Gómara examined the first specimens received by the sultan of Bacan as a gift, he declared, “We are of the opinion that these birds are nourished by dew and the nectar of spice trees.”
The birds were said to come from islands in the vicinity of terra australis incognita (an unknown land to the south). Their mysteriousness gave rise to the distinctive mystique as exotic treasures and objects of desire.