‘The Way of Birds’ was printed by Collins in 1937 and is written and illustrated by R.B. Talbot Kelly (1896-1971); a captain in the Royal Artillery who served in the first world war, his father Robert George was also a famous artist. I found this tome at a book fair in Lewes and as soon as I saw the illustrations inside I knew that I could not leave until I had bought it – after haggling over the price of course!
This book has three chapters; the first on Feathers, the second on Wings and the third contains all of his paintings. The first chapter is not, as you might think, a scientific explanation of what a feather is and how it works in all its forms, rather Mr Kelly explains to us why he loves birds as living creatures and as artistic subjects. He passionately tells the reader how the Egyptians and East-Asians depict birds so realistically and vividly in their art, he gives us an in-depth perusal of how birds are depicted in art, how they challenge the painter and avidly goes on about the remarkable transient properties of feathers.
The second chapter reveals what a brilliant observer Mr Kelly was, he describes how a wing is structured, how it gives flight to the bird and how the bird uses it. He goes into great detail describing how different species have different shaped wings depending on where they live and how they fly, he remarks on the miracle of flight and how birds have perfected it beyond any other animal on Earth – this guy knew his stuff.
At last we come to the illustrations, all seventy-two of them – so unfortunately I do not have the space or time to go through each one with you! The paintings are a mix of black-and-white and colour, with a short piece of accompanying text by the author giving further details on the bird in question – each one has its own full page spread and is separated from the next one by two blank pages – showing this is a quality publication.
Mr Kelly’s style is one of the most unique among bird illustrators that I have ever seen, being more than a little bit oriental and almost cartoon-like, not through lack of detail but because of the smoothness of the colours and the boldness of his lines. That is what these pieces are all about – the line – he is economical with his lines quite religiously, highlighting the main feather edges and key shapes of the bird but excludes any fussy minute detail on the feathers; he paints only what he thinks is necessary.
The composition is brilliant (you sort of expect that though), most importantly however is the life each image has; Mr Kelly knows these birds better than his own mother and his time in the field really shows in the postures and characters of all of the birds he has illustrated here. His use of background is almost surreal; being sometimes little more than strangely shaped patches or lines of colour, then in some he has painted in leaves or grass, the odd shell or stone, but never quite how you would have expected.
His use of colour, like his lines, is limited to what he’s deemed necessary; it is always in soft washes with no sharp edges and there is not a trace of a brushstroke – making a very strong, rounded, 3-D effect. Some have no colour, some have only small patches of colour (such as a snow bunting where only the crown is painted pink), and then some are multi-coloured in strange, luminous shades of unexpected blues, pinks, oranges, greens and browns.
I obviously love Mr Kelly’s work, the art is completely original and very striking, the lines make it though – those thick, smooth, curving, flowing, economical lines that somehow sum up an entire bird’s structure, lifestyle, habitat and character in just ten or so flicks of a pencil.