Caught by the River

Extinct Boids. A Book by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy

24th October 2012

Reviewed by Robert Rubbish

Extinct Boids is the brainchild of Ceri Levy, film maker and co-curator of the ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ project. The story begins with Ceri approaching artists to be part of the ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition. He was interested in getting Ralph Steadman to create a piece of art representing an extinct bird from the regrettably long list. Once Ceri had established contact with Ralph, so began the pair’s journey – a voyage of the imagination and a friendship, born out of the need to conserve the world’s bird life. The result was a hundred paintings of extinct birds and a running commentary of the whole process as it developed over a year, culminating in this great book.

Ralph Steadman is probably best known for his drawings in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so the idea of him creating over one hundred pieces of art based on extinct birds was quite an interesting thing to observe. I first laid eyes on the birds he had created in the exhibition in Shoreditch in November 2011. From floor to ceiling they were displayed and they could even be viewed through binoculars. I enjoyed the experience greatly and jumped at the chance to review this book. Since then I have learnt a lot about Ralph’s work, the workings of his mind and how he creates his art.

This book, for me, works on three different levels and is designed so it can be viewed in three different ways. The viewer can read the commentary by Ceri, where we are given a thorough account of all correspondence between Ceri and Ralph. It starts with the very first email he sends and the subsequent back and forth, phone calls and diary entries. We witness a playful friendship between the two men and soon the idea develops into what will become the book.

Ralph’s interest in extinct birds and living birds grows and he creates images of them everyday. Ceri’s enthusiasm and excitement seems to be perfect in spurring on Ralph’s work. Soon Ralph is adding ‘Boids’ as he calls them into the mix. ‘Boids’ are made up of extinct birds that reside on a place called ‘Toadstool Island’. These creations are a welcome respite from the list of man’s true destruction of bird life.

The second way the book can be viewed is as a historical record of the extinct birds, a brief history of where they lived and ultimately how they meet their demise through the hands of man, both directly and indirectly.

The third way the book can be viewed is as an art-book where the viewer can delight in Ralph’s wonderfully expressive artworks. With the commentary from Ceri we learn how the artist approaches the subject – almost attacking the blank page to see where the first contact of ink will take the composition of the bird’s character. The ‘Boids’ all have very expressive looks and they all seem to have a personality that jumps out from the page. This book is something that the viewer will keep coming back to; it is not something that is meant to be digested in a single sitting and it’s good to dip into from time to time.

What I took from this book was a strong message that we all need to try and conserve wildlife and be conscious of what is going on with birds. They live very close to us, not only in the country but the city too, and as Ceri says “they are an early indicator of what’s happening to our planet.” Buying this book also helps this cause, as money from sales are going back into conservation projects. All in all, this book is funny, mad, sad and very moving. I for one enjoyed it very much.

Robert Rubbish is one of the artists behind Le Gun magazine and as such was a contributor to the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition. You can view some of his work here.

Caught by the River is proud to be hosting the launch of Extinct Boids, at Rough Trade East, London, on Thursday, 1st November. More information on that event can be found here.
Copies of the amazing book are now on sale from our bookshelf in the RT shop, priced £35 (also by mail order).