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Painting on a perch: parrots are an enduring theme in European art, as Averil King learned at an unusual exhibition at the Barber Institute.

Parrots have long been treasured as exotic pets: Alexander the Great owned a green parrot with a rose-pink collar and blue cheeks (later known as the Alexandrine parakeet), and Charlemagne and Charles IV of France both possessed parrots. In the later Middle Ages the bird became associated with the Virgin Mary for obscure reasons, and was often represented in scenes of the Virgin and Child. Perhaps because of its ability to speak, it has symbolised eloquence, prophecy, a messenger, or even the human soul.

This delightful exhibition on the theme of parrots in art is the last major loan show to be staged at the Barber Institute by its director, Richard Verdi, before his retirement in September. Within the section displaying works on paper are both Durer's magnificent engraving of The Fall of Man (1504), where an Alexandrine parakeet perches on a branch above Adam, and the exhibition's earliest work, a strangely moving German woodcut from around 1470 (Fig. 2) showing the Christ Child holding a green parrot. The earliest canvas, painted a century later, is an anonymous portrait of William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham, and his family of seven children, in which a chained goldfinch and an unfettered parrot are allowed to join them at the meal table.

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Parrots are an obvious ingredient for still lifes, and two 17th-century works from the Low Countries portray them presiding over arrays of game and fruit. Still Life with Fruit, Dead Game and a Parrot by the Antwerp artist Jan Fyt demonstrates an impressive ability to render feathers, fur and the bloom on plums and grapes, while Jacob Franz van der Merck's Still Life with Fruit and Parrot exemplifies the art of the pronkstilleven, or showy tabletop arrangement.

Several works, including the meticulously painted Woman in a Red Jacket Feeding a Parrot by Frans van Mieris, and G.B. Tiepolo's washier Young Woman with a Macaw represent parrots as the fond companion of an expensively dressed woman. Derived from Venetian courtesan portraits of the 16th century and probably painted for Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Tiepolo's alluring canvas shows a scarlet macaw, with ruffled feathers and a large curved beak, leaning perilously near its owner's bared breast.

But the stars of this exhibition are the Victorian pictures, whose creators focussed on the 'personalities' of their avian subjects as well as painting them supremely well. Paroquets by the Irish artist Edward Murphy (Fig. 3) was once owned by Sir Maziere Brady, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who was to be axiomatic in the formation of the national art collection; it shows a brightly coloured scarlet macaw accompanied by a salmon-crested Moluccan cockatoo and a green ring-necked parakeet in a garden setting. Landseer's 1839 portrait of Queen Victoria's pets also features a scarlet macaw, this time watched by two royal lovebirds, Islay the Skye terrier, and Tilco the black-and-tan toy spaniel, as it demolishes a biscuit. Even in the august company of this exhibition, Landseer's feathers are among the most cleverly painted.

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Two of the most appealing pictures are by Henry Stacy Marks (1829-98), who turned to painting birds in the 1870s and made frequent visits to the parrot house at London Zoo in order to observe and sketch them. Wonderfully adept at capturing the softness and delicate shades of their feathers, Marks charmed the Victorian public with his bird 'characters', yet avoids over-sentimentality. Exhibited are his watercolour The Lovebirds' Wedding, in which the ceremony is witnessed by a pair of eagle owls, storks, cranes, a penguin and other birds, and A Select Committee, dominated by a bossy Hyacinth macaw.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Henry Tonks's small Girl with a Parrot, dating from 1893, has a liquid handling of paint and colouristic skill that bring to mind Delacroix and Moreau's less innocent female figures. The Burrell Collection has lent an 1888 watercolour by the Glasgow Boy Joseph Crawhall, The Aviary, Clifton (Fig. 1). Retrieved from a wastepaper bin in the artist's studio by a friend who recognised its merit, this dazzling and assured work depicts a row of birds at their feeding perches. William Nicholson's quite different Rose-Crested Cockatoo, painted in 1917, is an interesting example of his restrained and elegant design. Cockatoos are partial to bread and tea and Nicholson's, shown in front of an oval black Japan tray, nibbles a loaf of bread beside an upturned tea-cup.

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An abruptly modern note is introduced with William Roberts' forceful, geometrically inspired Cockatoos. Painted following a visit to a pet shop in Camden Town in 1958, this shows the solid, bulky forms of a mother and two children absorbed in contemplation of a row of parrots at their feeding perches. With the birds' claws resembling the children's outstretched hands, it incorporates more than one visual pun.

This is an exhibition about the parrot in art, but for good measure there are some natural-history illustrations, including Edward Lear's graceful Blue and Yellow Macaw and a number of Elizabeth Butterworth's superb studies, showing images of entire birds combined with heads, wings, and individual feathers on single sheets.

Verdi's informative and generously illustrated catalogue, featuring paintings of parrots by artists as diverse as Mantegna and Manet, greatly enhances a visit. It serves, too, to remind us of the contribution that his scholarship and curatorial expertise have made over many years.

'The Parrot in Art: From Diirer to Elizabeth Butterworth', Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham (+44 [0] 121 414 7333), 26 January-29 April. Catalogue by Richard Verdi, ISBN I 85759476 2, 15 [pounds sterling] (Scala).

Averil King is an independent art historian with a special interest in 19th-century painting.
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Author:King, Averil
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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