De Avibus

De Avibus

Showing in the Saxmundham Cartebluna Open Studio this month

Nearly twenty years have vanished since I first made these.  From time to time people have asked me to comment on them; but not being a natural writer, I don’t find this the easiest of tasks, so until now I never have.

The Latin title might sound a little pretentious to some, but I like the precision and elegance of Latin. It’s somehow appropriate for these magnificent winged relics of the dinosaur dynasty.   It’s also a reminder that I started off my student life as a Classicist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, rather than as an art student.

For some years before making DE AVIBUS, I had been making various images and etchings featuring birds, some of them quite ornithologically exact, others more expressive interpretations. Traditionally of course, the bird is the symbol of the soul or self, or in popular language, the female; its wings a metaphor for the human longing for freedom.  In any case, from my early twenties onwards miniature cartoon-like bird figures are a constant feature in my sketchbooks.  Now I am drawing a weekly cartoon strip featuring a harassed mother hen.   It would be fair to say that I am obsessed with the bird-form!

DE AVIBUS, however, was the first cycle of etchings I designed expressly to be presented in a book form: via a series of illustrated proverbs, we follow the bird’s progress through the 12 months of the year, beginning with the cool blues of January, followed by the ritual of spring mating, then late summer and autumn snaring, and finally the bird’s migratory flight southwards in the winter. The production of DE AVIBUS also took a somewhat migratory course: the text plates and first image plates were made in Sweden, while I was a visiting student at the Royal College of Art in Stockholm; the rest of the image plates were made and printed in Scotland on my Danish Tofko press; then I bound the books in the South of France during a period spent working at the Village des Arts et Metiers du Livre in the Herault.

Whilst researching the proverbs I discovered that there were many more than the well known ones still in use today.  The same proverbs often had variants in more than a dozen different languages. Many originated in the practice of bird-catching, from whence they took on their secondary reference to everyday human life and the rituals of courtship.  A few years earlier I had ploughed my way through the complete works of the French Jewish philosopher Simone Weil (a contemporary of de Beauvoir and Sartre who died in the Second World War) in a doomed attempt to write a doctoral thesis on her aesthetic theories.  I was struck by the similarity between the images she uses to describe her ideas and these bird proverbs; one of her ideas, for example, is that beauty is the “snare” by which God, the “Fowler”, seduces us humans into the spiritual life.

In any case, I had been seduced by something else entirely: jaune foncéviolet solide, and bleu concentré - the indescribable and extraordinarily intense etching pigments made by the French manufacturers Charbonnel.  The doctoral thesis died and DE AVIBUS rose from its ashes.