Eccentric twins mortgaged house to bankroll rare book about Texas birds
Locked inside a vault in Galveston’s Rosenberg Library is a rarely seen treasure that might be considered the Holy Grail for Texas birders.
Few people have ever seen “Of Birds and Texas,” a tome in the library’s rare book collection that contains beautifully detailed paintings of more than 40 Texas birds, including roseate spoonbills, canvasback ducks and grackles.
The book was created by Fort Worth twin brothers Stuart and Scott Gentling, who in the 1980s set out to paint portraits of bird species native to Texas. The brothers were inspired by the work of John James Audubon, who famously set out to document birds in his book “The Birds of America” more than 100 years earlier.
“When they first saw a copy of that book, they got interested in art, and especially paintings of birds,” said Eleanor Barton, museum curator at Rosenberg Library.
They took that interest to an extreme level.
When the brothers’ book was published in 1986, “Of Birds and Texas” was hailed by critics as “the most magnificent book ever produced in Texas.”
The Dallas Morning News described it as “destined to become a classic of ornithology and fine printing,” and painter Andrew Wyeth declared it “overwhelming,” according to reports.
The book, which weighs 47 pounds, is known as an elephant folio. Its pages are larger and wider than a typical broadsheet newspaper. The book is unbound, meaning each page must be flipped, gently.
Only 500 copies of the book, which cost the brothers $850,000 to produce, were ever printed. They financed the project by mortgaging their home and their mother’s home, and by auctioning off an Audubon painting they owned.
Copies of the book are valued at more than $3,000.
Galveston’s copy is a “rare, rare book” because it includes proofing pages with editing marks that were made before the final edition was printed.
The paintings are sometimes whimsical, or even dark. One prairie bird is perched on a branch while a tornado tears across the horizon. Another stands on top of a sun-bleached alligator skull. Another drinks from water that has pooled in the footprint of a dinosaur.
Prints from the book were the subject of an exhibit at the library in 2016, but beyond that, it seldom leaves its perch in the library’s rare book vault. No one has checked out the book in three years, library officials said.
The Rosenberg Library’s rare book collection is surprisingly diverse. The library’s collection includes Babylonian tablets and books printed on the original Gutenberg printing press. Many of the library’s rarest books are part of a display on the building’s second floor.
Rosenberg Library is the oldest continuously operating public library in Texas, and its rare book and special collections were started even before the library opened in 1904, Barton said.
“The special collection is what makes our institution very unique compared to other public libraries,” she said.
“Of Birds and Texas” can be accessed by asking a librarian at the Rosenberg Library, 2310 Sealy Ave., and visiting the Galveston and Texas History Center on the library’s second floor. Because the book is so rare, it cannot be borrowed.