I’ve chosen this striking piece of printed cotton to represent the gifts given on the fourth day of Christmas, according to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.
The open-beaked bird on this chintz (glazed cotton fabric, usually printed with multi-coloured designs), which was made as a furnishing fabric for British firm Miles and Edwards around 1830, starkly contrasts to the stylised William Morris doves discussed in the second blog of this series. This avian design is highly detailed, and it depicts its subject—a male lesser or greater bird-of-paradise—quite faithfully.
The design is very much a product of its time. The British public was becoming increasingly familiar with, and captivated by, accurate depictions of birds. Technological and educational advances were facilitating new discoveries in the realm of natural science and enabling a wider dissemination of ideas and images, and ornithology had recently evolved into a scientific discipline in its own right—one which fascinated specialists, enthusiasts, and the public en masse. Brits were particularly fascinated by magnificent birds associated with far-flung countries, and male birds-of-paradise with bright plumages were real favourites. Companies responded by producing fabrics like this, which decorated many middle- and upper-class nineteenth-century homes. Some firms, probably including Miles and Edwards, even took aspects of their designs from scientific illustrations of the day. For example, the furnishing fabric shown below, made in Lancashire in 1831 and owned by the V&A in various colourways, uses visual elements of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-1838). Interestingly, like the chintz bird above, the bird which draws the most attention on this fabric has its beak open. It isn’t calling—as the bird-of-paradise, known for its mating call, may or may not be doing—but it can be said to be singing for its supper.
If you’re interested in making an appointment to view textiles and fashion objects at the Clothworkers’ Centre, please email email@example.com.