A Group of Twelve Paintings of Southeast Asian Birds
This exceptionally vibrant group of twelve studies of Southeast Asian birds presents a series of highly accomplished works that demonstrate some of the finest examples of Chinese export painting.
Individual species are typically shown, with the exception of paradise flycatcher, with a female black-naped oriole, and the study of a paradise flycatcher, with a black-collared starling. All of the studies feature native vegetation such as blossoms, fruiting shrubs and tall grasses, providing ornamentation and emphasising their naturalistic context. The artist’s playful nature is also revealed as one of the spotted doves keenly observes a beetle as it unwittingly approaches it on the underside of a stem. The compositions also depict a graceful elegance, illustrated by the arching grasses evoking the curve of the jacana’s tail and the tips of the foliage echoing the bird’s sharply pointed feet and beak. The works are also typified by a soft palette of exquisitely rich mineral pigments, fine shading around the bird’s eyes creating expressive vitality and exceptionally detailed plumage, highlighting individual feathers. These qualities invite the viewer to truly contemplate the attributes of each species in their individual magnificence.
The present studies also bear comparison to works in other notable collections. The pheasant-tailed jacana appears in a similar manner to a red-crowned crane, plate 61 in the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China. In both works the bird appears facing to their left with tall grass behind them, drooping under the weight of their seed heads. Both drawings depict rocks either underneath or beside the birds and the foliage behind the two birds is extremely similar in their pale green hues and depictions in small clusters. The birds also share the same poised expression, extremely fine detailing of the feathers and soft shading to demarcate the wings.
John Reeves worked for East India Company as a tea inspector. Spending time in Canton and Macao, under his direction he commissioned Chinese artists to paint the local flora and fauna, these works were sent back to England between 1817–1830 and were an invaluable contribution to the study and understanding of natural history.
The notable similarities between this exceedingly accomplished group and the Reeves collection firmly places this series within the canon of highly acclaimed Chinese export paintings, produced for distinguished western collections.
1. A Study of a Pair of Tawny- Breasted Parrotfinches (Erythrura hyperythra)
A male and female tawny-breasted parrotfinch call to each other as they prepare to feed on ripe rice plant seeds. First described by Reichenbach in Canores Exotici, 1862, these secretive birds display moss green wings set against vivid orange breasts, with sturdy beaks capable of prizing open the toughest of seeds.
A member of the Estrildidae family, the birds are commonly found in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. They frequent tropical and subtropical shrublands, forests and arable lands.
2. A Study of a Pair of Red-Whiskered Bulbuls (Pycnonotus jocosus)
A pair of red-whiskered bulbuls perch in a kumquat tree as they turn toward each other with affection. These charming, spirited birds have pointed black crests, distinctive red and white cheek patches, brown and white bodies and a red vent on the underside of their tails. Feasting on fruit and invertebrates, the bird’s habitat includes forests, farmland and urban gardens. Found mainly in Southeast Asia they have also established themselves in America and Australia. In early spring their evocative kink-a-joo cries increase as the birds engage in theatrical courtship rituals.
3. A Study of a Pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis)
This charming study depicts a pair of spotted doves perched in a banana tree as one of them keenly eyes an approaching beetle. With grey heads lapsing into a pinkish-buff, darker feathers on their wings and long tails, their distinctive black collars, finely spotted with white dots. They are an attractive member of the columbidae family. Native to southern Asia, spotted doves can now be found in many parts of the world. They frequent woods, scrub, farmlands and are often found in urban locations. Breeding pairs are monogamous and often forage for fruit together. During courtship males perform ‘bowing’ displays on branches as they lower their heads and call to the females.
4.A Study of a Black-Capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileate)
With a striking coral beak and rich purple-blue wings, the black- caped kingfisher is an exceptionally beautiful bird. A member of the Alcedinidae family, these tree kingfishers are widely found in China, Korea, India and Southeast Asia. Frequenting mangroves, rivers and coastal waters, their keen eyesight and rapid wings enable them to dive for fish and insects with masterful precision. In 1821 the English naturalist William John Swainson first introduced the genus Halcyon to the Black-capped Kingfisher. Deriving from Greek mythology, the Halcyon was a kingfisher that was able to charm tempestuous oceans into a state of calm.
5. A Study of a Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradise) and a Black-Collared Starling (Gracupica nigricollis)
A male paradise flycatcher perches above a black-collared starling in this attractive composition. With pure-white plumage and magnificent cascading tail, the flycatcher displays a unique elegance. Typically males don’t develop their long tail feathers until two or three years old, when they may grow up to a remarkable 30 cm long. The birds prefer the dense coverings of forests in China, Sri-Lanka, India and Myanmar, as well as central Asia where they swoop beneath the canopy to gather insects.
Perching on a loquat branch, the black-collared starling has a white head with a yellow patch of skin beneath the eye and a distinctive band of black feathers around the neck. The mantle and back are an iridescent sepia and the wings are a paler brown with white tips. These social birds may be found in a wide range of habitats across Southeast Asia including China, Myanmar and Thailand.
6. A Study of a Male Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus)
This resplendent portrait of the male green peafowl depicts the bird in its true glory. Crowned by an upright crest, the lustrous plumage meanders between copper, emerald, lapis blue and green-black tones. The tail feathers glisten and shimmer as the bird struts forward.
Green peafowl can live in a range of habitats including tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands. They feed on insects, fruit, plants and may even pray upon snakes. Native to the forests of Southeast Asia, regrettably the species is in rapid decline due to habitat loss and hunting.
The earliest record of a European seeing a green peafowl was the French naturalist François Levaillant, notably the bird had been sent from Macau to the Cape of Good Hope.
7. A Study of a Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradise) and a Female Black-Naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis)
A female black-naped oriole perches upon a rock beside a brilliant orange lily. Her subtle plumage of mustard yellows and grey-browns provides excellent camouflage in the forest canopy for this secretive bird. Despite its name, Oriolus chinensis frequents woodlands in Russia, India, the Philippines and China where it feeds upon insects and fruit.
Above, the magnificent blue tinged paradise flycatcher is daintily perched upon a branch. The bird’s exceptional tail feathers are displayed to their utmost in this well conceived portrait. Female paradise flycatchers favour males with long tail feathers and breeding pairs share in protecting their young with great tenacity.
8. A Study of a Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)
A resplendent male mandarin duck resides under a lotus flower at the edge of a pond. The bird’s elaborate plumage consists of a broad white eye-stripe bounded above by a shimmering green crest and below by flammeous cheeks. The pale orange raised ‘sail’ feathers culminate the bird’s ornate display to attract a mate.
Widely regarded as the world’s most beautiful duck, the Mandarin is a native of China and Japan, although they have travelled widely and even established colonies in the United Kingdom.
A symbol of fidelity, mandarin ducks frequently appear on wedding gifts in China and were traditionally presented to newly married couples.
9. A Study of a Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
The shimmering emerald feathers and raised black crest provides an arresting study of the male northern lapwing. Also known as the green plover or peewit, lapwings can be found widely across temperate Eurosiberia. In winter large flocks often migrate to China, India, and North Africa. Slender legs enable them to wade across their preferred habitats of wetlands, meadows, marshes and fields. During the breeding season, males perform captivating displays of aerial dives as they rotate from side to side whilst maintaining a constant call.
10.A Study of a Pheasant-Tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus)
The extraordinary pheasant-tailed jacana is the only member of its genus. It is also unique in its taxonomic family as it displays a different plumage during the breeding season, as represented in the present study. The bird’s white face and throat is divided by a black stripe running down from the crown, framing the brilliant yellow feathers on the nape of the neck. The chestnut brown and white body is accentuated by the magnificent elongated central tail feathers. The bird is also commonly referred to as the water pheasant and belongs to a family of wading birds whose large feet enable them to walk upon floating vegetation in search of their prey. Pheasant-tailed jacanas may be found in China, throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
11. A Study of a Grey-Headed Swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus)
A grey-headed swamphen preys upon an unsuspecting snake in this animated study. With glossy indigo, azure and turquoise plumage, displayed in riotous contrast against a vermillion bill and frontal shield, it is evident why the Romans kept swamphens as ornamental birds. The species is native to the tropical and subtropical regions of southern China, Thailand, India and the Middle East where the birds reside in freshwater swamps and marshes. Swamphens demonstrate an unusual method of feeding, often employing their long toes to raise food toward their beaks, rather than stooping down.
12. A Study of a Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant (Polyplectron bicalcaratum)
A male grey peacock-pheasant stands before a pink poppy and flowering rose. The bird’s fawn coloured plumage is enlivened by a dazzling iridescence of green-blue ‘eyes’ on their backs and tail feathers. Both sexes are similar, although the males have longer tail feathers and a crest that may be extended forward to cover their beaks. Consuming fruits, seeds and insects, the birds stealthily travel through the dense forests of China, Northern India, Southeast Asia and the Malayan Peninsula. During the breeding season, males spread their wings and open their tails, providing a hypnotically shimmering display for the females.