People have always been fascinated by birds, for these creatures, unlike humans, were not earth-bound. They had the power of flight, to soar freely through the air at will, unimpeded by any obstacle. In addition, many of them sported beautiful and colorful plummage. And in the days of the Regency, as had been the case for all the centuries which came before, most people were aware only of those birds which lived in their area. By the early nineteenth century, between the expansion of scientific discovery and the growing availablity of inexpensive prints, more people were able to enjoy a wider range of bird species, up close, in those prints.
Bird prints in the Regency . . .
In England, the earliest prints of birds began to appear during the second half of the seventeenth century. Most of these prints were produced for wealthy collectors, typically those with an interest in ornithology rather than art, as these early prints tended to be more realistic than artistic. There was little style or animiation in the depictions of these feathered subjects, and some looked more like a taxidermied member of the species than a living one. But England was a nation of people who loved the rural lifestyle of country, and birds were considered one of the most attractive aspects of that lifestyle.
As foreign travel and exploration became easier and more common through the eighteenth century, and the Age of Enlightenment inspired people with an interest in the world beyond their own daily sphere, British travelers and explorers were exposed to an ever-widening number of animal species, including birds. These expeditions often included artists, or there were members of the party who also possessed well-developed drawing skills. In an age before cameras, the only way to capture images of these creatures in order to record the animals encountered had to be drawn on the spot. When these artist-explorers returned to Britain, their drawings were engraved or etched to make prints which could be more widely disseminated to an always curious public. By the turn of the nineteenth century, printing techniques had improved to the point that these prints of exotic species were affordable even by members of the middle classes.
By the Regency, bird prints were acquired by those interested in what was often referred to at the time as "natural history," a general category which included the study of anything to do with nature, from animals to plants and a host of things in between. Many bird prints were published in books or albums in which information about each species was included to supplement the illustrations. In the best of these books, the Latin names as well as the common names for each of these species were provided, making them suitable for those who were studying both science and classical languages. Such books typically appealed to those of a studious nature who wanted to know more about the wider world and the creatures which existed beyond their own daily sphere.
But bird prints in the Regency appealed to other, less studious audiences as well. Where some men might collect sporting prints, many ladies became avid collectors of bird prints because they enjoyed the beautiful colors and ornate plumage displayed by a large number of the more exotic species. Quite a number of these ladies might also wear garments ornamented with the feathers of some of these same birds. The rich colors and natural themes of bird prints frequently appealed to those ambitious ladies who might be planning a print room in their home. They might choose to use a few bird prints scattered about the room to add splashes of color as accents in certain areas, or they might choose birds as the primary theme of their personal print room. In particular, some ladies preferred prints which included the bird in or near its nest and/or showed the birds caring for their young, because they were drawn to the tender scenes of family values portrayed in these prints.
An extreme example of the use of bird prints to decorate a special room occurred shortly after the Regency, in the elegant dining room of the manor house at Temple Newsam. In 1827, the dowager Lady Hertford, the former mistress of the Prince Regent, decided to use the fine set of Chinese paper-hangings which the Prince had presented to her mother decades before to re-decorate her dining room. Once they had been applied, Lady Hertford decided that the Chinese paper-hangings did not have enough ornamentation to satisfy her. Therefore, she decided to enrich them with the application of a number of beautiful birds. Lady Hertford cut out twenty-five images of birds from the first volume of The Birds of America, produced by John James Audobon. She pasted the cut-out bird images on the Chinese paper at points where she thought more ornamentation was needed. Lady Hertford was apparently not at all bothered by the fact that she had paid £1,000 for that first edition elephant folio volume only a few years before.
Since the process of chromo-lithography was not perfected until the early 1820s, all prints produced during the Regency, including bird prints, were all colored by hand. Colored prints of birds were preferred, even though they might be slightly more expensive, since the major allure of these prints was the glorious colors. The popularity of colored bird prints had the effect of creating steady employment for a host of children and poor women, who supported themselves coloring prints for a number of the larger print-makers and publishers of London. In the early nineteenth century, the bulk of the art print trade was carried on in London. There were very few print-makers or publishers outside London who produced fine art prints.
With the plethora of both still and video images available to us today, in color, anywhere, anytime, it is hard to understand the importance of pictorial prints in Regency England. At that time, each print was a window into another world, in some cases, a world away. Bird prints were very popular with both students of natural history and print collectors who simply loved the natural beauty of these delicate and colorful creatures. A number of artists were also students of bird life and created images of the birds which depicted them engaged in activities which were common to the species, as well as capturing their appearance and colorful plumage. Thus, bird prints often presented images which could draw a smile from the viewer for the curious antics of their subjects. Is it any wonder so many people chose to collect them?
Dear Regency Authors, might you allow one or more of your characters to collect prints of birds in an upcoming story? Perhaps a love-sick young lady is mad for prints of turtle-doves and love-birds, since she is planning a print room dedicated to love. How might that play out in a story, with dramatic or comedic results? Mayhap the hero is able to make his fortune upon his return from a long expedition, during which he has drawn a host of beautiful and colorful new species of exotic birds. Will having prints made of his drawings make his fortune, enabling him, at last, to be able to mary his true love? Perhaps a young lady, trying to elude a forced marriage or some other unpleasantness, makes her way to London, where she takes a job coloring bird prints to eke out a quiet living while she plans her next move?