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The making of Slater's Field Guide to Australian Birds

The Library has recently acquired the extraordinary archive of  Peter Slater, one of Australia’s best-known ornithologists.

Created between 1970-2009, the archive comprises both manuscript and pictorial material, and provides a fascinating insight into his work. His watercolour drawings of birds are remarkable for their crispness, photorealistic depiction, detailed texture of the feathers and vividly rendered pigments, particularly for the parrots and kingfishers. He is noted for his exceptional ability in capturing the iridescence of feathers. Rosellas

Born in 1932, Slater grew up in Western Australia and later moved to Queensland. He developed a keen interest in bird photography from an early age, winning numerous awards in international exhibitions. In 1964 he was made an artist of the International Federation of Photographic Art (Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique). Becoming a professional artist in 1968, he has also written on a variety of ornithological subjects, producing more than 30 books and field guides — often in collaboration with his wife and son.

Slater’s work includes some of the most popular guides to Australian birds in the 20th century — the two-volume Field Guide to Australian Birds, JD Macdonald’s Birds of Australia, and The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds. They have been reprinted numerous times since first being published. The archive includes approximately 3500 individual images in total.

The two volume Field Guide to Australian Birds (1970–74) is significant as the first national bird field guide produced since Neville Cayley’s What Bird is That? in 1931.

The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, first published in 1986, was truly a joint effort of the entire Slater family — it was illustrated by Peter, his wife Pat wrote the text, and their son Raoul contributed the maps. This popular household title was a revised edition of his earlier two volume field guide.

Slater was passionate about making birdwatching more accessible for the non-expert, and made the decision to group birds according to their habitat for ease of identification, and insisted on a compact size that could slip into a pocket or glovebox and be used in the field by beginner and expert birdwatchers.

A second updated and reorganised edition of The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds was issued in 2009. It describes and illustrates approximately 800 species, featuring 64 new or revised colour plates, and incorporates all the new birds recorded in Australia since 1986.

Importantly, these revisions document the changes and discoveries regarding Australian birdlife in even this relatively short period of time between 1986 and 2009. Each bird was colour-matched against a specimen in a museum using the Villalobos Colour Atlas to achieve the exact colour mixing for accuracy. Slater notes that he favoured a technique of representing birds side-on to assist with easy comparisons between species. The side-on view is also a practical choice as it allows for the greatest amount of information compressed into the smallest area.

Penny Olsen, author of Feather and Brush: Three Centuries of Bird Art states that Slater ‘reckons to have painted every Australian bird no less than four times’. The Library holds an internationally significant collection of natural history works, particularly works documenting Australia’s unique bird life, dating from European discovery and colonisation in the 18th century through to contemporary works in the 20th and 21st century. Slater’s illustrations continue the tradition of scientific and aesthetic documentation of Australian bird species that can be traced back to the artists in the NSW colony.

The Archive is currently being carefully listed, arranged and described to ensure researchers can discover this amazing collection in the future.

Maria Savvidis
Curator, Research & Discovery