23 JANUARY 1892, Page 12


THE critics and admirers of Mr. Waterhouse's fine picture of the winged sirens on the ship of Ulysses did not, so far as we recall the discussion to which the artist's treat- ment of the incident gave rise, give him credit for having been among the first, if not the first, of modern artists to abandon in an important picture the conventional and stereotyped representations of flight, and to paint the poise of his sirens' wings in accordance with the ascertained facts of bird-movement in the air. It seems strange that the flight of birds, the most beautiful and perfect form of motion, should have aroused so little general curiosity. No power has been more envied by man. He has attributed it to divine beings, and vainly tried to share it. Yet quick-sighted and sympathetic observers of life in the fields have missed this most obvious and inviting study, and we cannot therefore wonder that Londoners forget that, in watching and dis- tinguishing the methods of flight of the birds that haunt their parks and lakes, there is open to them a new and delightful field of observation. The limitations which the want of the re-a exercise, a want which M. Marey so deplores in his recent work, " Le Vol des Oiseaux," has set to our knowledge of the flight of birds will be very plain if we compare M. Marey's ingenious photographs, in some of which he has obtained as many as sixty images per second of the beating wing, with the

drawings of flying birds by European artists. Of the main attitudes of sustained flight, two only are, as a rule, correctly given by our painters. One of these is that proper to the gliding motion by which any bird is able, after acquiring a certain impetus, to float onwards without a beat of the wing. In this the bird is correctly represented with the wings spread, and the tips pointing backwards. It is an attitude easily seen, because the wings are motionless. The second, which is the conventional method of representing the point-to-point flight of birds, shows the moment at which the wings are raised before the down-stroke begins. It is not the most characteristic attitude of flight, for it marks the moment of least progress. The down-stroke which follows is the main effort of propulsion, and it is the moment of its close which the Japanese artists usually select to paint in their impressions of flight, an attitude which Mr. Waterhouse has chosen for one of his flying sirens, and one which M. Marey's photographs show to be, on the whole, the most frequent im- pression left upon the sensitive plate. Unlike the grotesque presentments of the movements of the horse which the in- stantaneous photograph has given us, these picture-analyses of bird-motion are most graceful and suggestive ; and the eye readily learns, after a careful study of the photographs, to discern and mark for itself the different phases and positions of the wing peculiar to different movements, such as alighting, rising from the ground, or rising from or descending into the water. That these movements might be detected by the eye unaided, seems clear from the drawings of flattering and descending or gliding birds, which our artists have usually given correctly; for these drawings are almost without exception suggested by the flight of domestic pigeons, which can be observed in their ascents and descents without trouble and close at hand. But it seems strange that Landseer should have missed the characteristic flight of a wild duck rising from the water, and have painted those disturbed by the hunted deer, in his picture of " The Sanctuary," in an attitude which five minutes' observation of the wild fowl on the Serpentine will show to be unnatural. The seagull, which, as Mr. Ruskin shows, is conventionally repre- sented by a symbol like a mathematical bracket, and quite sufficiently for the purpose of the landscape-painter, gives perhaps the best object-lesson in flight. From the deck of a vessel, or a pier-head, these beautiful birds may be watched sailing, flying, or gliding on a level with the observer's eye, and the most marked movements of the wing are readily seen. In the very pretty photographs of flying seagulls generally to be seen in the shop-window of a well-known photographer in the Strand, about one-third of the gulls show the down-stroke of the wing. But this is because many of them are gliding forward or hovering, and not in steady flight. Such pictures, which are becoming very popular, are excellent educators in the facts of flight, and supply a useful miscellaneous set of examples with which to compare the scientifically arranged photographs of M. Marey. In proof of the impression which the new ideas so suggested have made upon modern artists, we may point to the great vivacity and truth which mark the recent treatment of subjects of sport and natural history by the ablest of those painters whose taste has led them to make such subjects their peculiar study. Mr. Stuart-Wortley's pictures of driven grouse, and the admirable studies of flying wildfowl, grouse, ptarmigan, and black-game by Mr. J. G. Millais, some of the drawings in whose forthcoming book, " Game-Birds and Shooting Sketches," have already appeared, show a knowledge of the attitudes of birds in swift and sudden flight, which equals much of the best work of the Japanese artists.

It is difficult to account, except by the supposition of pro- longed and intense observation, for the astonishing fidelity which not only the best, but even the minor painters of Japan, have shown in their drawings of birds in motion. Unaided by the magic of the camera, they have for generations seen and portrayed not only the main facts of flight, but the most minute and delicate differences in the poise of the beating wing; and if we compare the "Hundred Birds" of Bai Rei, or the collections in the White Galleries at the British Museum, with the last discoveries of Western science, we shall find examples of every attitude which M. Marcy obtained by the use of his " photochronometer." One of their favourite subjects is the flight of birds for shelter in a storm of rain; and we know no more graphic pictures of flight than these.

An excellent example is the cuckoo flying in a storm (No. 106 in the White Gallery), painted towards the close of the last century by an artist called Kwan Setsu. In Bai Rei's book there are two similar pictures ; and the collection of Japanese drawings at South Kensington contains some very striking examples. Among the best is that in which a fox has seized a mandarin-duck, whose mate rises scared from the water,—which we may contrast with Sir E. Landseer's wild ducks in "The Sanctuary" mentioned before. But perhaps the most curious instance of minute observation in the South Kensington drawings, is that given in a painting of a gull about to settle on the strand, while another gull is feeding on the shell-fish that lie by the edge of the waves. The attitude of the flying gull's wings represents one of the quickest and least easily detected of all the common movements, one which even instantaneous photography very rarely detects. Yet the Japanese artist has caught the movement, and reproduced it in his sketch.

Such quickness of the eye can perhaps never be expected from Western artists. Hours and days of patient observation could alone produce such powers, and patience of this kind is an Eastern, not a Western gift. But with the facts already ascertained, it is not difficult to train the eye to far greater powers of observing the flight of birds than is now common to most observers of Nature. Sometimes Nature herself suggests an aid. Last winter, when the cold was so intense that the snow, instead of freezing into a solid mass, remained as powdery and soft as when it fell, the rooks and other birds left a number of ready-made scientific data of their manner of flight recorded in the, snow. We learn from the photographs that the wings descend far below the axis of the body in flight, almost meeting below the bird's breast. As the rooks and small birds flew just above the surface of the ground, they left casts of each wing-beat in the soft snow. The distance which the bird travelled between each stroke was thus easily measured. So in alighting, the use of the tail as a stopping- machine, and the backward beat of the wings, was recorded; and in rising, the precise angle at which the wings struck the ground was clearly shown. When the snow froze, these delicate casts of the momentary beating of the wings re- mained like cut-marble on the hard surface, a perfect though short-lived record by Nature's own automatic process.