The most consistent trait in Gwillim’s birds is her depiction and placement of their feathers in such a way that shows an unprecedented understanding of avian anatomy. This is a subfield of ornithology called pterylography: the descriptive science of plumage, the arrangement of the feather tracts on the birds skin. Pterylography attends to how feathers specifically overlap on the birds to cover bare, flexible skin (since birds are not fully covered in feathers), which varies greatly and is species-specific. Gwillim’s affinity for this very specific visual detail was noted by Canadian ornithologist and artist Terrence Shortt, who claimed in an exhibition catalogue on her work that “no artist before 1800 had demonstrated the kind of intimate understanding of pterylography that is revealed in the Gwillim birds.”

What we see below are very limited examples of this detail, as it is characteristic of the majority of Gwillim’s work.

With this owl, we can see the underside and the layering of the tail feathers, as well as the unique patterns on each feather, which both are such specific details to include. This speaks to Shortt’s belief that Gwillim must have truly studied the birds as she painted them, to achieve such natural and accurate postures. I imagine that with the help of the “venerable looking old Moorman” who turned the living subjects in proper attitudes, as mentioned in Mary’s letter, Gwillim was thus able to observe and capture all the relevant details of a bird.

Similarly, here we can note the overlapping of the wings and tail feathers, as well as the smaller, finer feathers in less-immediately visible parts of the bird. Gwillim depicts multiple different types of feathers in specific locations and relations to their functions and to one another in the anatomy of the bird.

Here, we can appreciate the attention to the colouration of individual feathers in accordance with their placement on the bird.

As mentioned above, the majority of Gwillim’s birds exhibit the exceptional attention to detail of the placement and colouring of the feathers. To view the whole collection of birds and to see more examples of their details, visit McGill’s catalogue here.

By Saraphina Masters