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Only 1,000 copies of this book will be produced for sale, each hand-numbered on a special limitation page.
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With their extravagant, sweeping plumage and glorious iridescent colours, birds of paradise appear almost mythical: indeed it was once thought that they lived entirely in the air, only falling to the ground when they died. Their plumes have been exchanged as currency and worn in sovereigns’ crowns, and they played a part in helping Darwin, together with A . R. Wallace, formulate his theory of evolution. At the end of the 19th century, Richard Bowdler Sharpe published his Monograph of the Paradiseidae and Ptilonorhynchidae. Dedicated entirely to birds of paradise and bower-birds, it is one of the greatest bird books and, for many, the most beautiful ever created.
At the time when Sharpe’s Birds of Paradise was produced, lithographic plate reproduction had reached its peak of subtlety and precision. The illustrations showed these fabulous birds in radiant colour and exquisite detail. Their beauty is breathtaking – from the Great Sicklebilled Bird of Paradise, with its shimmering plumage and long, sweeping tail feathers, to the Emperor Bird of Paradise with its foamy white and golden plumage. The book is an ornithological and artistic triumph.
David Attenborough has written a foreword to this new Folio Society edition, in which he gives a fascinating account of the spell these birds have cast across the centuries, prized by every society that came across them, from indigenous tribes of New Guinea to the King of Siam. More personally, they are prized by Attenborough himself, who first came across this book in a library as a boy: ‘I was astounded then by the birds’ beauty. And I am in thrall to them still.’
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The 19th century saw a rapid evolution in the publication of natural history books. Magnificent large-scale tomes, sumptuously bound and illustrated with hand-coloured plates, celebrated all the latest discoveries of exotic birds and animals around the world. Richard Bowdler Sharpe was Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Zoology Department, and had collaborated with John Gould on The Birds of New Guinea. Following Gould’s death in 1881, Sharpe set out to create an entirely new work dedicated entirely to birds of paradise and to bower-birds, then thought to be related to birds of paradise.
Sharpe chose John Gerrard Keulemans and William Matthew Hart as the artists for the project. Both were specialists in the subject; many of Keulemans’s works can still be found on display in the American Museum of Natural History. Once printed, the plates were coloured in by hand, a laborious and skilled process. Three of Sharpe’s daughters were colourists who had worked on other ornithological books, and it is possible that they contributed to their father’s masterpiece. Certainly the hand-colouring is of a quality and sophistication that mark the culmination of a great tradition, evincing skills that modern practitioners find impossible to match.
Painter and naturalist Errol Fuller is the foremost authority on Sharpe. In his introduction to the commentary volume he explores the historical context of Sharpe’s project, noting how Sharpe chose ‘the perfect group of birds – spectacular in every way – to bring about a grand finale to a glorious episode in publishing history.’
Review by MKenny on 8th Oct 2012
"I saw a program in the series "Nature", here in the USA,titled "Birds of the Gods". I was amazed at these beautiful birds and their displays. When I next checked the Folio website this book was just..." [read more]
Review by AliceF10 on 12th Sep 2012
"As a collector of bird books this was a 'must have' for me and once it arrived I found that it surpassed my expectations. The plates are simply beautiful and the binding most handsome. All I can say t..." [read more]