The Making of ‘THE UNFEATHERED BIRD’

Six o’ clock on a Tuesday evening; and newly-married Katrina van Grouw is returning from work. Husband Hein is in the kitchen, bent over the sink, while a pan bubbles away on the stove behind him. Domestic bliss! “Mmm. Oystercatcher.” Katrina smiles as she peers into the pan. Hein puts down the partially cooked magpie he’s picking at, and kisses his wife. Katrina takes a skull from the dining room cupboard and retires upstairs to draw it.

“What an interesting job you two have” said a dinner guest in well-disguised alarm. We diligently explained that although our job also happens to be with dead birds, as bird curators at the Natural History Museum’s collections at Tring, this is in fact an entirely unconnected venture for a completely different purpose. “Katrina’s an artist”, pointed out Hein, as though that rationalised any strange behaviour. “And I’m just helping her.”

I’m actually half artist, half ornithologist, and occupy a niche midway between art and science. I’ve been self-employed as an artist, since graduating from The Royal College of Art 20 years ago, and worked at The Natural History Museum for seven years. College years were spent on endless bird dissection: skinning, mounting specimens, cleaning and articulating skeletons. And drawing; always drawing. It was about that time that I decided that I wanted to produce a book of anatomical drawings for bird artists. That ambition stayed with me ever since - through countless letters of rejection: from art publishers who said that my proposal was too birdy, and bird publishers who said my proposal was too arty. It was many years before the dream became a reality and I signed a contract with Princeton University Press for ‘The Unfeathered Bird’.

I had quite a pile of illustrations already. But the prospect of achieving my goal brought a flood of new ideas and it became clear that I’d need a lot more pictures. So I was faced with the challenge of locating dead birds to draw. And finding time to prepare them…

At this point I must assure readers that no birds were harmed during the making of this book. I relied exclusively on the goodwill of birds dying naturally in places where they could be found and on the goodwill of a great many people who picked them up for me. Also on zoos, taxidermists, aviculturalists and museums.

I didn’t marry taxidermist and fellow bird curator Hein van Grouw so that he’d prepare skeletons for my book. Or use his extensive contacts in the European avicultural world to obtain specimens for me. But it certainly helped. As soon as we were back from our honeymoon the boiling began. Pans of stuff you wouldn’t want to look at too closely began to appear on the stove. A snazzy new electric drill arrived, along with stacks of nice wooden bases. And boxes and more boxes of bones began to pile up in various stages of cleaning, bleaching and articulation. Gradually the bones began to turn into birds: strutting rooks, displaying lapwings and a fantastic array of pigeon varieties of seemingly impossible proportions. It was Hein’s stroke of genius to include domestic birds and they’ve provided the inspiration for my next project.

‘The Unfeathered Bird’ will be in bookshops by the end of the year. I’ve now left the museum, and have already begun work on another book of anatomical drawings – this time of domesticated animals – entitled ‘Unnatural Selection’. Stay tuned….