Michael Bird

Non-fiction writer

Michael Bird is an independent art historian, with special interests in modern art, cultural history and the ‘art/life divide’. His books on British artists such as Sandra Blow and Lynn Chadwick explore the poetics of creation in biographical terms. In The St Ives Artists: a biography of place and time, he investigates the unique mid-century flowering of international modernism in a small seaside town. His history of art for children, Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories, told through 68 semi-fictional stories, has been translated into fifteen languages.

As Goodison Fellow at the British Library, Michael produced the first in-depth research into National Life Stories’ vast Artists’ Lives archive of oral history recordings. This resulted in an exhibition at The Lightbox and a book, Studio Voices: art and life in twentieth-century Britain. He’s convinced that art can often work better on radio than TV (imagined pictures being more vivid than those on screen) and has presented numerous features for BBC Radio.

After reading English at Oxford, Michael taught English and published poetry and short stories in PN Review, Encounter and other magazines. He then worked as an editor on art projects for Macmillan and Phaidon and began to write on art, going on to publish ten books and many essays and articles. He has also written exhibition scripts for museums in Britain, Nigeria and Sweden.

Michael lectures widely, and gives seminars and workshops in universities and galleries, schools and festivals. He lives in Cornwall with his wife, the artist Felicity Mara.

Michael Bird has written fifteen books about art and history; he broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio, and has organised exhibitions in the UK and the Netherlands. He began his career as an English teacher, then worked in publishing and as a writer for museums and galleries. Michael’s books include This is Tomorrow: 20th-century Britain and its Artists, 100 Ideas that Changed Art and The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time. His children’s history of art, Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories, has been translated into 20 languages. In 2018–21, Michael was RLF Fellow at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus. Since 2022, he has given Bridge workshops in London and Cornwall, where he lives.

I am an independent art historian and curator, and have published more than a dozen books and many essays. ‘Art historian’ is maybe not quite the right label: I write about art, and I write history – two lifelong guiding passions – and try to bring the two together in my work. For example, my most recent book, This is Tomorrow: Twentieth-century Britain and its Artists (Thames & Hudson, 2022), charts the course of a turbulent century through the lens of artists’ lives, focusing on moments and movements in which artists have been involved, including the women’s movement, the growth of modern media and technology, and the effects of global migration. I am particularly interested in the ways in which history flows through individual lives, and I increasingly turn to spoken history as research material, alongside visual and documentary sources. During 2016–17, as National Life Stories Goodison Fellow at the British Library, I listened to probably hundreds of hours and many voices from the Artists’ Lives archive; This is Tomorrow and an earlier book, Studio Voices, owe a lot to this phase of research.

My life as a published author began with poems and short stories in student magazines while I was studying English at Oxford. I continued to publish in magazines like PN Review and Encounter, and received a couple of Arts Council grants. The best of this early work, I’ve always felt, were poems that started life with looking at paintings, which helps to explain why – some years later – I began writing seriously about art.

My first full-length art book was a monograph on the twentieth-century British painter Sandra Blow. Before this, I’d taught English and worked as an editor in academic and fine art publishing, then freelanced as a writer for museums, exhibitions and cultural organisations.

I have scripted and presented features for BBC Radio, including The Wreck of the Alba (2009) and The Flower Fields (2012). In a programme for ‘The Essay’, Land and Sea and Sky (2010), I reflected on the connections between the coastal landscape of Cornwall, where I live, and my writing life. These connections are also the bedrock for the cultural-history narrative in The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time, first published in 2008 and about to appear in a third edition. I’ve also written and edited books for children, of which my favourite is Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: A Children’s History of Art, which runs from cave artists to Ai Weiwei in sixty-eight short stories and has been widely translated.

In 2018–21, I was RLF Writing Fellow at Exeter University, based at Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

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Michael Bird|Michael Bird

Michael Bird

Non-fiction writer


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  • University of Exeter, Penryn, 2018–2021
  • Reading Round Fellow
  • Bridge Fellow