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I’ve been commissioned to provide the jacket artwork for a forthcoming book by Tim Birkhead.  The Geat Auk: Its Life, Death and Afterlife will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in March 2025.

I’d researched the Great Auk a decade ago when asked to create something for the Ghosts of Gone Birds project.  It was a major multimedia art exhibition in London aiming to throw light on the increasing loss of bird species across the world. More than 80 contemporary artists, sculptors, musicians, writers, and poets were each asked to produce a new piece of art inspired by an extinct bird and celebrating its life.  The species allocated to me was the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis.

Both projects have required much research and now feel that I understand more about the bird – its bill structure, gape colour, plumage detail like the white marking on the head.  Also, I found an image of the only known drawing of a living bird which is by an artist in the Faroe Islands who captured the bird in 1655 and kept it as a pet.  The drawing shows the posture and some of the summer plumage detail, but it is difficult to see characteristics of the Great Auk’s wing.  Is it vestigial or like a fully formed wing - only smaller?  I’ve seen flightless Steamer Ducks in the Falklands with a wing which looks exactly like a wing for flight, but not powerful enough to lift a hefty looking barrel-bodied Steamer Duck into the air!  I’ve handled many hundreds of Gentoo and Macaroni penguins and felt the painful powerful swipe of a tapered, flattened flipper that is more like a fin than a wing!  Looking at film of Razorbills underwater I can easily see how the Great Auk’s nearest living relative ‘fly’ through the water column turning and diving with extreme agility without any instantly obvious extra twist of the wing shape or push of the rudder-like legs trailing behind – again, swimming just like penguins do!  




For my various re-imaginings I wanted to breathe a little life back into the magnificent and extinct Great Auk.  I could draw a great deal from my research material and remember my own experiences handling penguins in a sub-Antarctic penguin colony 50 years ago and seeing them underwater.  I also had contemporary knowledge from dozens of sketching expeditions to see auks on UK cliffs, and from sailings across North Atlantic waters and visits to St. Kilda and Greenland, I had gained an understanding of the remote and stormy marine environment where Great Auks once lived.  I could imagine them in a ‘feeding frenzy’ slicing through huge ‘bait balls’ of cod, herring, or capelin.  Perhaps thousands of them forming huge rafts, surfacing for an instant then descending again beneath a rolling North Atlantic swell to feed again.

Pulling all these threads together to create my own image of the Great Auk I’ve made a sequence of drawings as if I was actually at sea, sketching them from life; it must have been like this.

There they are!  A small raft of them sitting low in the water (as penguins do), they are ahead of us as we nose our boat in closer to the towering cliffs.  There are lines of razorbills and guillemots along every ledge and high above the black and white cross shapes of gannets soar against the grey tones of cloud and cliff as multitudes of Kittiwakes swirl through them in the chaos of massed birds (just like on St. Kilda and the Faroes Islands where I’ve visited or sailed past).  Beyond us the sheer cliffs of these remote North Atlantic islands vanish behind a dark grey veil of cloud as a squall passes.

Just ahead Great Auks are splashing and rolling as they bathe close to shore before breaking off in groups hurtling through the surging swell to land (just as penguins do.  They scramble awkwardly over the rocks up to where rows and rows of them, a raucous mass of birds stacked against the cliffs.

On the surface of the rolling swell there are Great Auks everywhere; I can see them streaking by underwater - swirls of bubbles spinning from wings and compact bodies moving torpedo-like beneath the waves, wings out powering along, large feet trailing, turning suddenly diving deeper (like Razorbills do).  Once upon a time it must have been like that!

I wanted to convey the sheer beauty and sense of energy in what must have been one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles - a mass of Great Auks gathered in a feeding frenzy in the cold waters of the North Atlantic just a few hundred years ago.  Like the legendary Dodo, the loss of the Great Auk has become more than just a symbol of extinction.  It conveys a deep sadness not only for the loss such a beautiful creature, but also of a profound spectacle that is now missing from the Natural World for ever.



© 2024 Bruce Pearson.  All rights reserved.