By Elsie Percival
Bill first put pencil to paper as a boy. During the Depression he would stride out into the Sydney bush by himself, not far beyond his tin-shed neighborhood, and watch the trees and shrubs that would burst with the sound of birds. Eager to get to know these animals he would sit still amongst the leaves and focus all of his attention on the plumage of parrots, honeyeaters, spinebills and pigeons. With each stroke of his pencil he breathed their chirps, felt the subtle ruffle of their wings and learnt the deep hues of their feathers that mirrored the surrounding blossoms and rich blue expanse of the Australian sky.
On the 10th of May 2015 William T. Cooper passed away. Hailed by David Attenborough as ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive’, Bill’s tremendous ability to capture the essence of birds around the world has affected bird lovers and city slickers alike for decades.
Illustration tells the story of the tangled development of science and art. Guiding each other through a progressive journey, one could not have existed without the other. In the field of natural history, this mutualism is integral. However, in today’s world, illustration is often seen as a dying tradition. The development of photography, scanning electron microscopes and other image processors are often viewed as replacements to the captivating art form. To me, Bill Cooper debunked this perception. Drawing from the scientific-art history of illustration, he reinvigorated the craft, digging it out of stale museum cases, and gave it a new form.
His astute understanding of the ecology and personality of the birds he painted shines through in his work. Birds of paradise dance and dangle on moss covered trees in Papua New Guinea in an act of love and pompous ego, Red-tailed black cockatoos’ eyes glint from the oiled canvas in a hot Australian savannah that seems to almost warm the cheek. The sweet purple fruits of the Queensland rainforest were filled with juice in an instant with his brush–complementing the illuminating text composed by his wife–a renowned botanist, at their home in Topaz.
William T. Cooper will be missed by scientists, artists and bird lovers, and probably by many who are yet to discover his exuberant body of work. However, his biodiverse and colorful legacy will continue to live on; to connect hearts and minds to the avian jewels with which we are lucky enough to share our land.
A clip from a documentary about Bill Cooper made by Sarah Scragg, as he works towards an exhibition: https://vimeo.com/49892627