Before the Camera:   Bird Prints

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?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Before the Camera:   Bird Prints

  1. helenajust says:

    Thank you for another fascinating post! I’m wondering how affordable the coloured bird prints were? I appreciate that the The Birds of America by John James Audubon was a special case, and so £1,000 was not the norm. Were bird prints sold in print shops alongside cartoons?

    • Prints of all kinds including those from India were readily available and not expensive, and could be acquired from paper stainers as well as from print shops

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is always nice to know that my posts are appreciated. Thank you for saying so!

      Bird prints were available in a wide range of prices. As Sarah noted, there were a flock of cheap prints imported from India by the Regency period. Such prints could probably be had for just a few pence. However, prints made in Britain could also be had in a wide range of prices. The costs would depend upon the detail in the drawing itself, how well that detail was reproduced in the engraving, the size of the print, the quality of the paper on which it was printed, and whether or not it was colored. Therefore, a small print, with little detail, uncolored, might also sell for just a few pence. A very large, detailed image, printed on high-quality paper, richly colored, could sell for anywhere from several shillings to a few pounds.

      There were some print shops which specialized in caricatures and political cartoons. However, based on my research, though many print shops might attract customers by posting the political prints in their windows, they had much larger inventories in order to serve a wider clientele. In those shops, those seeking bird prints would probably have to ask to see them.

      Very large shops, particularly those which also offered art prints, like Ackermann’s in the Strand, would certainly have maintained a wide array of prints, including a large selection of bird prints. As Sarah also noted, a number of paper-stainers also carried a selection of prints, the majority of which were those their customers might want to create a print room, or use as accent decorations, either cut-out and applied over paper-hangings, or framed for hanging in rooms of less importance.

      I hope that helps to clarify how bird prints might be acquired in Regency London.



      • Kathryn Kane says:

        Something I neglected to mention is that the subject of a print might also have a bearing on its price. A print of a large, particularly exotic bird with beautifully colored plumage would cost much more than a print of a small native British bird with relatively plain plumage.


  2. I didn’t scream out loud at the vandalism to Audubon, because I already knew this story and had done all my screaming the first time… this wasn’t actually uncommon, as I have discovered in my researches into wallpaper, many a lady would use left over wallpaper or magazine prints to cut out and add more flowers or birds to the Chinese paper which was too restrained for the tastes of the time. As there was not always much concept of pattern matching used where the repeat was outrageously large [6′ or more], flowers might also be pasted over partial patterns at the edges of the paper too. [it should be noted that in addition to flour and water paste. wallpaper was nailed to the wall at the top and on the outer edge, the next sheet to cover the nails of the previous, and a frieze to cover the nails at the top; in some cases, being tacked at both edges and frieze strips pasted between the strips of paper].
    My thoughts ran along the lines of someone using feathers for featherwork flowers to decorate frames for bird prints. One of the crafts of the time was to use feathers instead of paint to make bird pictures, which were drawn onto paper and appropriate coloured feathers applied, starting at the tail so the shaft was covered, and fine feathers used from neck to head. Sometimes a bird-shaped model or a padded half-bird, as it were, was covered in feathers, usually mounted on blue or green-washed paper, often with beads for eyes, and grasses to make it seem naturalistic, displayed in a box frame, and most of them are ghastly.
    The making of ‘print rooms’ as an alternative to wallpaper was also a lady’s craft, in which prints, which might have been mounted on pasteboard and varnished or might be glued on directly were glued to a painted plaster wall or stretched canvas, and framed either with speciality wallpaper frieze sections that could include corners for this avocation, or with flowers cut from other prints, wallpaper, or painted by the lady herself. They might be in separate framed prints at intervals on a coloured wall, but there is at least a suggestion that some early [1750s] ones might have had overlapping prints and a wandering pattern of swags joining them all together, maybe even with raised moulded papier mache swags. The simpler form of a print room was a print screen, which was canvas stretched on a wooden frame covered with lining paper and with custom-cut pillars and decorations. One could purchase prints for the purpose from Charles Esplin, who supplied paint and borders and prints for this purpose; the list of materials he gives for a screen includes “4 books of flowers and birds, 2 quair [quire?] of blew [blue] paper, 1 quair marble paper [for the edges], lumber paper, gilt paper for the screen panel and cupolo.” 1749. Print rooms continued to be popular, however, though some ladies preferred to mount their prints framed in featherwork or shell work.
    [details checked from Jane Toller, ‘The Regency and Victorian Crafts’ and though she doesn’t say, gut instinct suggests that the padded ones were later rather than earlier. Also see ‘The Backstory of Wallpaper: paper hangings 1650-1750’ RM Kelly, “Wallpaper” Brenda Graysmith, and “London Wallpaper 1690-1840” T Rosoman.
    Sorry, I rambled rather there, but I wanted to share my researches where they tallied…
    The only plot bunny I can turn is a young lady eager to copy a bird print with real feathers, and having to be rescued by the hero – who she did not previously realise was the hero- from feathers glued to her fingers. A most intimate act, cleaning up those sticky little fingers, and almost improper, but the kindness of the hero wins her over as he doesn’t laugh at her for a sticky failure.
    I tried feather work once. I KNOW how far feathers can travel when you don’t want them to…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for sharing your research. There is no doubt that walls got a great deal more attention in times past than most of them get today.

      I like the plot bunny, for how very embarrassed and helpless one would feel with their fingers covered with glue and feathers. Any man who could help with clean-up without laughing at the victim certainly qualifies as a hero in my book!



      • This is one reason my husband is my hero; he rescues me from all my sticky predicaments and kisses them better. Even when I have paint on my nose. I have to say I like modern wallpaper where you paste the wall with ready mixed paste much much more than the paper I used to help my dad hang in my youth. And as to making paste from flour and water, I shudder. Incidentally some of the paper stainers also had furnishing fabrics woven to match their paper; co-ordinating patterns is nothing new.
        I’m now having a plot bunny about a talented young lady who manages to find work designing wallpaper and ends up directing the makeover of a large house, because she won’t be expected to meet any of the owners – except that the new owner comes home and is captivated! he will of course make the mistake of assuming that she is a servant or a relative of the foreman of the paper hangers at first and ask to speak to who is in charge of the decorating, so they get off to a rocky start, but as he discovers that she is quite capable of taking over the design of the decorations for each room of the house he has inherited [left to decay by an elderly uncle] and sketch out her ideas, he becomes more and more fascinated by her cleverness. Perhaps the uncle collected bird prints, and she suggests a print room as a way of displaying them?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I like that plot bunny! Perhaps she is the daughter of the foreman, or the paper-stainer, which is how she became interested in developing designs for paper-hangings in the first place. It is also an easy way to explain her presence at the house. And, since most men I know don’t care much for interior decorating, I can see how the hero would be relieved to have a talented and knowledgeable expert to help him get his house in order. There are lots of possibilities with that one.


  3. helenajust says:

    I think you’ll find this post from Louise Allen about print rooms interesting:

    • Thank you, I KNEW I’d seen one somewhere in the flesh, Blickling Hall it will have been, I’ve been there. It’s almost local for me… great article, thanks for sharing!

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