New Norwich Castle exhibition that charts our unique links with birds

Hawk Pouncing on Partridges, John James Audubon,c. 1827. As featured in the exhibition The Wonder of

Hawk Pouncing on Partridges, John James Audubon,c. 1827. As featured in the exhibition The Wonder of Birds at Norwich Castle Museum (May-September 2014) - Credit: Archant

Just before the fateful date of AD 60, a wealthy Iceni family from Crownthorpe, near Wymondham, bought a lovely pair of wine cups from a local maker.

The Fascist Crow has Discovered, That to us He is no Eagle!, by Viktor Nikolaevich Deni. U.S.S.R, 19

The Fascist Crow has Discovered, That to us He is no Eagle!, by Viktor Nikolaevich Deni. U.S.S.R, 1944. As featured in the exhibition The Wonder of Birds at Norwich Castle Museum (May-September 2014) - Credit: Archant

Their king Prasutagus was a Roman citizen, and they were keen to share his sophisticated Romanised tastes, even after former trading partners arrived with an army.

The resulting copper alloy and tin vessels bore classic Roman bodies on elegant pedestals. But the fusion with Celtic creativity was shown by what was roosting on the handles.

Model ducks, with incised feathering and eyes of red enamel, were unknown in the Roman world and were in fact unique to Norfolk.

Then such tastes fell suddenly and fatally out of fashion. With the king dead, the Romans claimed that half of the Iceni kingdom the late ruler hadn't chosen to leave them – flogging his widow, raping his daughters and grabbing all the land.

Boudica's furious rebellion, which very nearly drove the Romans from Britain, began with short shrift for collaborators.

That family from Crownthorpe wisely buried its tell-tale treasures before taking flight. Since those valuables were retrieved as late as 1982, the would-be escapees may not have got far.

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But how fitting that ancient Norfolk, then as now on major avian migration routes, should have symbolised its rich culture in the form of birds.

Watery places were sacred to the Celts and, though the Broads were to appear much later as flooded medieval peat workings, there were many more wet spots in those days. Wildfowl abounded.

As an emblem for Norwich Castle's stupendous exhibition The Wonder of Birds, which opens today, those tiny cups are also ideal.

For more than 65,000 people visited the Castle during its preceding exhibition Roman Empire: Power and People. That record is about to prove very short-lived…

Some 220 works flown in from near and far explore the cultural impact of birds upon humankind from the dawn of our history to date. Those pairs of Norfolk ducks, two a cup, link most wonderfully to a single Babylonian stone-carved duck of around 2,000 years earlier and now lent by a Norfolk collector.

The oldest exhibit in the show also happens to look the most modern, as a grain-weight from deepest antiquity resembles an abstracted contemporary sculpture.

In this gallery-aviary the twitcher in us all can follow the emotions that birds have elicited down the ages - fear and reverence; pleasure, cruelty and greed. But the key response, and certainly from the exhibition visitor, will indeed be one of wonderment.

For birds long seemed to mock the human inability to fly, while also nesting in the earth and diving in the sea. And it was of course a phoenix that rose from the fire. These airy animals glide between the elements and wing across the planet.

The Wonder of Birds is split into six sections, each highlighting a different aspect of birds and their inter-action with human beings.

And each part integrates art with taxidermy, to surround the visitor with birds wherever we look (just as we are surrounded in our daily lives if we do but notice).

For so many of us the menagerie of stuffed animals forms our oldest and dearest memory of trips to Norwich Castle, and that's all the more apt because our fine city was a centre of the Victorian art of taxidermy, with the finest showrooms in Castle Meadow.

Now all those dead creatures gazing out with glass eyes, parodying life under suffocating glass domes, can make us feel sad or sick.

None more so than Frederick Strange's gorgeous Paradise Parrot, trapped and despatched in Queensland in 1851, and now seen complete with kitsch perch and faded labels. It's rendered hideous by the informative line that this wonder of Australia was wiped out by 1927.

An introductory section charts the breath-taking breadth of birds – what they are, what they mean to us, and how we have studied, portrayed, preserved, endangered and exploited them.

And so we meet Holbein's magnificent ultra-lifelike triple portrait – A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (discussed by me in an EDP feature a week ago and an exhibition in itself) – at the outset. The Norfolk treasure has returned to us from the National Gallery to be presented alongside another Renaissance masterpiece: a fantastic Mantegna drawing of an imaginary bird lent by the British Museum.

Predators and Prey is an especially fascinating section – with a most amazing 1948 Eric Hosking photograph entitled Heraldic Barn Owl.

This most glorious of birds – whose national stronghold is now my own part of north-east Suffolk – is captured with ghostly white wings outstretched, a rodent supper in its beak, and trailing an undercarriage of talons.

The backdrop of ancient brick and timbering is probably a barn, but it confirms the eerie impression that this blessed beast has been recast for one of the angel roofs in East Anglia's medieval churches.

And the greatest bird artist of all time, James John Audubon, features here with a terrific 1820s oil Hawk Pouncing on Partridges – a picture with predator and prey all in one.

Here too we see the traditional symbolism of the eagle, from kingship to fascism, subverted by a Soviet propaganda poster from the Second World War, in which the Nazi eagle is demoted to a crow through being throttled by a Russian soldier.

And a portrait of Peter Reade – Tudor mercenary, merchant and Norwich mayor – stares blankly out at us, while the hawk on his wrist remains hooded but alert in every fibre. The picture links to a lovely 12th-century Iranian lusterware ceramic figure of a hawk, attesting to the lure of falconry across and beyond the Islamic world.

For falcons (and tiercels) closer to home, there is a live link to the Hawk and Owl Trust's camera recording the daily development of the peregrine brood on Norwich Cathedral spire.

Naturally the Birds and Landscape section pays tribute to our region's avian symbol, the booming bittern – and also includes the premiere of a new painting by Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling, Heron in the shallows of the Thames.

Migrants and Ocean Travellers examines the seasonal movements of birds which can take migrants from Norfolk as far as the Arctic, Africa or South America. A stuffed albatross of huge size speaks volumes for now-endangered species.

Introducing the Exotic looks at the lethal lure of feathers for clothing, fashion accessories and as high-status pets – the former illustrated via a fabulous 1930s hat of dyed pheasant feathers and the latter by, of course, the Norwich canary.

And the final section – The Realms of the Spirit – shows how songbirds have been seen as heralds of the seasons, messengers from heaven or magical beings moving between worlds.

Two ancient exhibits beautifully capture the mythic appeal of birds – one of them a Norfolk relic of around AD 600: a Saxon pendant depicting the head of the god Woden, flanked by stylised ravens representing Thought and Memory.

And, fresh from the British Museum's Beyond Eldorado exhibition, the show's most haunting object is a shaman's necklace from Colombia, possibly a thousand years old, in the form of a human-bird deity.

The Wonder of Birds is truly wonderful. Go, go, go…

The Wonder of Birds opens today at Norwich Castle Museum and runs until September 14.

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