From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The birdbath was broadcast on 14th August 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
If you were to describe the perfect garden then you’d probably include a birdbath. They’re part of our horticultural landscape and yet the birdbath has an indistinct history. Any investigation into where they came from will immediately take us to the ancient gardened spaces of Persia where the introduction of water in rills and splashing fountains would surely have drawn the attention of any birds. There are also the courtyard pools that captured and stored rainwater in the venerable buildings of Asia and the Roman Empire. But in these cases, any bird daring to take a bath would probably have been kept as a pet or captured to be eaten.
We have to go to the grand estates of Europe in the 1600s and beyond to get a hint of where a birdbath fits in. The construction of lakes, grottoes and fountains was a sign of huge wealth, and led to the less formal work of designers like English landscaper Capability Brown in the 1700s. These manmade waterways were home to swans and other water birds, often complementing a private deer park. There were dovecotes, too, like the picturesque pigeonniers found across France. But pretty as all these were, their intention was ultimately to provide food and fertilizer. This is still different from a birdbath, but the notion of attracting birds to our immediate surroundings seems to have taken hold.
The birdbath became, in fact, popular in the smaller gardens of the Victorian era, with a new appreciation for the informality of the cottage garden as a counterpoint to the increasing industrialisation of the landscape elsewhere. A birdbath added an extra dash of naturalness. Garden ornamentation became hugely popular from the mid-1800s, everything from ornate statues to simple sundials, and much of it factory-made in cast iron, the material of the Industrial Age. The Arts and Crafts movement popularised the simple joy of having a birdbath using simpler, less ornate materials. One of the early garden designers, Gertrude Jekyll, advocated that all such items should be made in lead, which blended well with old brick and mellow stone. By the turn of the twentieth century, whether in metal, stone or terracotta, the birdbath had truly arrived.
They have remained popular, especially in Australia, as climate change has produced more vicious summers in which birds quickly succumb to thirst and heat. With the increase in city density, a birdbath on a balcony or a rooftop terrace can support the local ecosystem, nourishing not just birds but insects and other wildlife. They may be reminders of the grand artificial lakes of the past, but unlike those, modern birdbaths do nothing more (and nothing less) than encourage nature into our space, adding movement and colour. They are therefore an icon of empathy, showing an understanding of our surroundings. Our reward is nature’s beauty. The perfect pact.