I was fortunate while in London to catch the very end of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition at Rochelle School, Shoreditch. The visual exhibition is the focal point of a programme of multimedia events which aims, in the words of the project's creator Ceri Levy, to 'raise a creative army for conservation.' Ghosts has attracted an impressive array of artists, famous and less so, and asked each of them to 'breathe life' into an extinct bird or birds of their choice. The results are exciting in their variety and ingenuity, testament to the limitless power of birds to fan our creative flames.
Time was when taking photographs in galleries and exhibitions was a capital offence. Not so these days and Ghosts positively encourages the publicity of amateur photographers uploading their own images to social networking sites. So I have no qualms about reproducing my photographs of prints by Ralph Steadman, one of the exhibition's most prolific contributors. Steadman's birds have all the caricaturist's hallmarks; scratchy lines and ink blots, grotesque humour and precarious vulnerability. Other than Leonard Baskin, I cannot think of an artist who captures the 'essence' of a bird more intuitively in his work. It is not surprising that both Steadman and Baskin collaborated with Ted Hughes, for whose 'red in tooth and claw' nature poems their art is the perfect complement.
Steadman draws birds that are both real and imagined. Alongside the egrets and grebes and parrots are made-up birds with wicked names like the Nasty Tern and the Needless Smut. There is perhaps a nod in the direction of medieval bestiaries here, those lavishly illustrated menageries of fantastical creatures compiled in the silence of monastery scriptoria; a touch too of Jorge Luis Borges' erudite but playful Book of Imaginary Beings. It may just be me, but I even sense hints of Dr Seuss, whose One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was a staple reading aid of my childhood, populated with lovable and laughable pets with conveniently rhyming names.
Behind his sly humour Steadman has another purpose, however. For every extinct bird that history has recorded there are dozens of others that will have passed into oblivion without our knowledge, unnamed, undocumented and therefore unlamented. As another contributing artist, David Taborn, explains: 'I started to ponder over the 'unsung' birds whose state of extinction left no evidence, and for whom a memorial to the 'unknown bird' would be appropriate.' Steadman has taken the unknown bird and given it form and name. Who's to say that his Gob Swallows and Once Bittern are any less plausible than the giant moas of New Zealand? Even Dr Seuss' creations are hardly more comical looking than the dodo.
Whatever his motives, Ralph Steadman has been truly kindled by the Ghosts project. Initially commissioned to contribute a single work, his prints keep coming and he has quipped that extinct birds 'have more character than today's politicians.'
The show at Rochelle School has finished now but Ghosts goes on building its creative army. You can buy prints and follow developments on the project's website www.ghostsofgonebirds.com