Katrina van Grouw – The Unfeathered Bird

We are displaying the wonderful Katrina van Grouw’s work in our Coffee Shop for the whole of October. Here she tells us about the inspiration behind her drawings, and the book ‘The Unfeathered Bird’, published by Princeton University Press.

Budgie Skeleton - Katrina van Grouw

Budgie Skeleton – Katrina van Grouw

Fact: If you’re going to spend several months intimately involved with a dead duck, it’s got to have a name.

I was an undergraduate Fine Art student of 22 with a passionate interest in natural history in general, and birds in particular. My college artwork was life-sized, Audubonesque, copper plate engravings of dramatic birds doing dramatic things. I’d thrown myself with gusto into ornithology: trained to be a bird ringer; taught myself taxidermy and prepared bird skins at my local museum.

What I was looking for on the beach that day was a bird I could dismantle in stages; make drawings of, layer by layer, bone by bone; strip down and then re-assemble again as a skeleton. And then I saw her: a female mallard in fine condition – except for being dead. I christened her ‘Amy’ and took her home. At graduation, the drawings of Amy were bound into a book with a professional-looking title embossed in gold on the cover: The Anatomy of Birds.

Twenty five years later – a lot more birds dismantled and drawn, and a lot of hissing and “quack – get out of here” from publishers – The Anatomy of Birds finally emerged as The Unfeathered Bird, universally acknowledged as a very fine swan indeed and dubbed by one reviewer “the best book ever to be inspired by a dead duck”.

The problem was one of preconceptions. Anatomy = textbook. I proposed to break that mould. What I wanted was combine the beauty, the attention to detail and sheer artistry typified by the best historical illustrations with up-to-date, jargon-free text that relates birds’ structure with their behaviour and evolution. It mattered little to me if readers know that the tibiotarsus articulates with the tarsometatarsus. What was more significant was that they understand that the joint between them is the ankle and not the knee.

The Unfeathered Bird is about adaptations. It shows how competitive pressure for survival has raised ostriches onto only two toes so they can run faster, shaped penguin wings into blade-like paddles; how having an enormous breastbone has enabled sandgrouse to commute and how tinamous have risen above their disadvantaged background by sheer stealth tactics. It’s a book for bird lovers: artists, and scientists, alike.

In my living room, the skeleton of a Mallard looks down at me benevolently from its glass case. Amy is by no means the most elegant specimen in my possession, but she has a very special place in my affections. Who would have thought a dead duck could do so much?


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