Bird, Edward (DNB00)

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BIRD, EDWARD (1772–1819), subject painter, was born at Wolverhampton, 12 April 1772, and educated himself. His father bound him apprentice to a maker of tea-trays in Birmingham. He is said to have embellished these articles with taste and skill, so that at the end of his apprenticeship he had very alluring offers from the ‘trade.’ Bird rejected all such offers, and went without any definite prospect, to Bristol. He busied himself with painting, and there conducted a drawing school. In 1807 he sent some pictures to an exhibition at Bath, and was fortunate in finding purchasers for them. ‘The Interior of a Volunteers Cottage’ was the subject of one; some ‘Clowns dancing in an Alehouse' that of another. In 1809 he sent to the Royal Academy a picture called ‘Good News,' which at once made known his name, and established it. This was followed 'by other successful works-‘Choristers rehearsing,’ and the ‘Will.’ In 1812 he was made an associate of the Academy. Both in his early development and late departures, the history of Bird, as an artist, is curiously like that of Wilkie, and, although the genius of the latter was incoznparably greater, Bird had yet talent enough to suggest to some interested people that he might be made to rival the too popular Scotchman. Of this little intrigue got up against Wilkie, in which Bird, it should be said, was innocent of playing a part, an interesting account is preserved in Haydon's ‘Journals’ (i, 142, 1st ed. 1853). After his election to the honours of the Academy, and under some delusion as to the quality of his genius, Bird turned his attention to religious and historical subiects. He painted successively the ‘Surrender of Calais,’ the ‘Death of Eli,’ and the ‘Field of Chevy Chase.’ The last of these is esteemed his greatest work. It was bought by the Marquis of Stafford for three hundred guineas; the original sketch for the same was sold to Sir Walter Scott. That this was indeed a powerful picture can be best understood by those acquainted with the fact that it moved Allan Cunningham to tears. The Marquis of Stafford also bought the ‘Death of Eli’ for five hundred guineas. The British Institution awarded the painter its premium of three hundred guineas in respect of this picture. In 1815 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy. In the following three ears he exhibited the ‘Crucifixion,’ ‘Christ led to be crucified,’ the ‘Death of Sapphira,’ and the ‘Burning of Bishops Ridley and Lattimer.’ The ‘Chevy Chase’ procured for him the appointment of court painter to Queen Charlotte. His last historical work was the ‘Embarcation of the French King.’ For the completion of this painting many contemporary portraits were required, and, according to Cunningham's account, the painter’s health was broken by the scant courtesy he received in his efforts to get them. The death of a son and daughter increased his trouble. His spirits forsook him, and he died. He was buried in cloisters of Bristol Cathedral November 1819.

He was properly a genre painter, only occasionally and partially successful in other departments of art. Upon such paintings as the ‘Good News,’ the ‘Country Auction,’ the ‘Gipsy Boy,’ and others of this class, his reputation depends. ‘He showed great skill in the conception of his higher class pictures, but he had not the power suited to their completion, and his colouring was crude and tasteless.’

[Gent Mag. vol. lxxxix, pt. ii.; Life of B. R. Haydon, 1853; Cunninghan's Lives of British Painters; Pilkington’s Dictionary of Artists; Redgrave’s Dict. of Artists of Eng. School; Catalogue of Works of Ed. Bird exhibited the year after his death at Bristol; Brit. Mus. Gen. Cat. sub cap. ‘Bird.’]

E. R.