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Lilian Medland has not received until now the recognition she deserves as a painter of birds. Due to world events and circumstances, five important books on birds containing her superb illustrations were never published. Despite such major disappointments, she continued to devote her time and talent to painting, first the birds of the British Isles and, later, those of Australia, her adopted country, where she died in 1955. Even now, she is not mentioned in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in her own right, but only in the entry for her husband, ornithologist Tom Iredale.
'Seen but Not Heard' is the first publication to shine a light on the life and work of this much-overlooked but brilliant Australian natural history artist.
Seen but Not Heard is the first publication to shine a light on the life and work of this much-overlooked but brilliant Australian natural history artist.
...it is the paintings, as delightful as they are full of personality, of ducks and geese and emus and parrots and kookaburras and cuckoos and owls and wrens and hundreds more which screech and caw and whistle and jostle for space on the page that make this book, if not essential reading, then essential listening.
'Seen but Not Heard' is a tribute to a remarkable woman who triumphed over disability and disappointment. Medland's specific and detailed depictions of birds are a significant contribution to Australian ornithology. They are also beautiful works of art.
Bird paintings spread wings
Book First to Celebrate Lilian Medland
In a case of better late than never, Seen but Not Heard: Lilian Medland's Birds, a new book by Christobel Mattingley, features the exquisite bird paintings of English-born artist Lilian Medland held at the National Library of Australia.
These illustrations of Australian birds have never been published before and it is largely due to the assistance of Medland's grandson, Dr Stephen Iredale from Pymble, that it was possible. "I feel that Lillian would have been overwhelmingly pleased to see her works published at last; given what must have been considerable frustration with the failure of publication of William Yarrell's A History of British Birds and Gregory Mathews' Birds of Australia and Bird of New Zealand in her lifetime," he said.
"By the same token, I don't feel for one moment that my grandmother allowed this to interfere with her artistic progress, as evidenced by her excellent paintings for her husband Tom's works Birds of New Guinea and Birds of Paradise, together with her 18 plates that she painted for his proposed work on kingfishers, now held at the Watkinson Library at Trinity College Hartford Connecticut."
Seen but Not Heard includes some paintings that are held privately in Dr Iredale's collection.
He also made available a memoir of his grandmother, written by his father, Medland's son Rex Iredale.
This contained useful personal information, details of Medland's lifestyle and her working methods.
"We, the family, are absolutely thrilled that part of Lilian's works have finally been published," he said.
Dr Iredale's grandmother was born in 1880 and came to Australia with her husband and children in 1923.
Medland studied and painted Australian birds for 32 years, yet Seen but Not Heard is the first book to focus exclusively on her.
She died before her naturalist husband Tom Iredale's work Birds of New Guinea, which she illustrated, was published.
A stamp the artist was commissioned to create for Norfolk Island was also not issued until six years after her death.
At the age of 27, Medland contracted diphtheria and lost her hearing as a result.
The title of the book, Seen but Not Heard, refers to this personal tragedy, as for the rest of her life she was unable to hear the birds she loved to paint.
Unless you are a British bird watcher who owns a copy of Charles Stonham's The Birds Of The British Islands, you've probably never heard of Lillian Medland. This talented English artist, also a trained nurse who tended the wounded in the Boer War, illustrated that tome and several other works, but this book reveals a lost cache of Medland's artworks published here for the first time. Medland was commissioned to produce works for the book A History Of British Birds but the outbreak of war in 1914 scuttled the project. After migrating to Australia she produced paintings for a series on Australian birds but only one volume was published and the paintings went unseen. She also sent 53 paintings to England for a book on Australian birds that was shelved due to the outbreak of World War II. This book tells Medland's fascinating story and finally reveals the glory of her unpublished artworks.
English-born 20th-century artist Lilian Medland's illustrations of Australian birds are exquisite, yet this is the first time her work has been published. She produced five books, but two world wars and other events prevented publication. Thankfully the NLA has safeguarded more than 1000 of her works. Mattingley's biography about her struggles, including deafness caused by diphtheria, goes a long way to honouring this remarkable woman.
Verdict: finally heard and seen.
I have admired Lilian Medland from afar since I first encountered her beautiful artwork at a National Library exhibition on all things birdy some 15 years ago. Her story is remarkable in itself. She was born in London to a somewhat eccentric landed family in 1880, and home tutored in a childhood featuring outdoor sketching, skating, skiing, mountain climbing and rearing two lion cubs that her father brought back from Africa. (Another of his souvenirs was a huge rhinoceros horn which was the doorstop both in London and later in her Sydney homes.) I did read somewhere that she also kept a woodpecker in her studio, but since this isn't reported in the book it may have been apocryphal. She was an avowed emancipist who expressed her independence by smoking (!) and riding a bicycle. Family money notwithstanding she studied nursing and tended to Boer War wounded. However, her sketching, while never formally taught as far as I can tell, was exceptional and while still nursing she was invited by Charles Stonham, leading surgeon at Guy's Hospital where she was working, to illustrate his sumptuous Birds of British Islands, published in 20 parts between 1906 and 1911.
In 1907 she contracted diphtheria and "lost her hearing" - hence the book title. Only - did she? Later in the brief biographical account we read of her listening to radio and attending natural history lectures in Sydney. Did she only lose part of her hearing, or did she later partially recover? And this underlines my only frustration with the book; the biographical account, a mere six pages for a rich 75 years of life, is so sketchy. The account is written by the prolific Christobel Mattingley, best known for her nearly 50 books for children and young people, based on conversations with Medland's son and grandson. Medland married zoologist Tom Iredale, and together they came to Sydney in 1923 where he became one of Australia's most respected and influential zoologists of his time, while she continued to paint and run a household on, it would seem, a shoestring. But why? What happened to the family money? More minor exasperations at questions not answered or asked.
She was doomed to professional frustration it seems - her large bodies of beautiful illustrations for three major planned books, on the birds of Britain, New Zealand and finally Australia, were doomed by war and financial issues never to be published. The last of these, a monumental work by the controversial Australian-English ornithologist Gregory Mathews, was disrupted by World War II and her 53 plates, each featuring several species, were finally donated by Mathews to the National Library of Australia. And here they finally appear in print for the first time in all their undoubted glory, plus a few bonus paintings. Local ornithologist and natural history art aficionado Penny Olsen provides a brief introduction to the plates. We are indebted to the library for making them available, it's just a pity they don't come with a bit more information on the remarkable artist herself - I learnt little new here, and I don't claim any expertise on Medland's life. I'll treasure the book for the paintings however.