Next week sees the opening of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland that will celebrate and examine the artistry and legacy of one of the world’s rarest books.
John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, published in the early 19th century, was the result of the naturalist’s intention to paint every bird in North America. The book consists of 435 hand-coloured life-size prints measuring up to a metre long and over half a metre wide. Many of the bird studies also include detailed backgrounds of plants and insects.
Audubon used mainly watercolour paints and pastel crayons in his original artwork. He completed over 1,000 paintings which are now owned by the New-York Historical Society, founded in 1804 as the city’s first museum. He started off painting long-dead birds, hanging them from a complex system of strings and wires to pin them into realistic poses, and using a grid on his drawing paper to help him draw accurate proportions. He would eventually switch to freshly killed specimens as he felt it was easier to capture their colours.
In 1823, Audubon started seeking support for his ambitious project by selling the copper engraving plates via subscriptions in North America and Europe. Subscribers received five plates at a time between 1827 and 1838 at a total cost of over $1,000.
Struggling to get financial support in America, in 1826 Audubon sailed to the UK with 250 of his illustrations looking for subscribers as well as engravers and printers. He exhibited his paintings in Liverpool and Manchester before travelling to Edinburgh where he met the engraver, William Home Lizars. Lizars introduced him to numerous Scottish luminaries including Prof. Robert Jameson, a naturalist and mineralogist, Sir David Brewster, a scientist and inventor, and James Wilson, a zoologist, all of whom were able to assist Audubon with his project. Audubon also made several research visits to what is now the National Museum of Scotland itself.
Although Lizars managed to engrave the first ten plates, after his colourists went on strike, Audubon was forced to move production to London where the work was completed by the Havells, a family of notable engravers, etchers, and painters.
Before the business relationship failed, Lizars commissioned a portrait of Audubon by the Scottish painter, John Syme, to publicise The Birds of America.
However, Audubon was displeased with the finished work stating, “At twelve I went to stand up for my picture, and sick enough I was of it by two; at the request of Mr. Lizars I wear my wolf-skin coat, and if the head is not a strong likeness, perhaps the coat may be. …It is a strange-looking figure, with gun, strap, and buckles, and eyes that to me are more those of an enraged Eagle than mine.”
The painting is now in the art collection of the White House.
The original edition of The Birds of America, known as the Havell Edition, or sometimes the Double Elephant Folio, was printed on the largest sheets of paper known at the time. The sets were often bound together by their owners, usually into 4 volumes, each weighing over 25 kg.
To accompany the plates, a companion text in 5 volumes, with the title, Ornithological Biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America, written by Audubon and the Scottish ornithologist, William MacGillivray, was published in Edinburgh between 1831 and 1839. Audubon avoided using text in The Birds of America so that he didn’t have to provide free copies to the British legal deposit libraries.
Although individual prints from Birds of America are not uncommon, only 120 complete sets are known to exist held in both public and private collections. Copies rarely come up for sale but when they do, they command prices that make them some of the most expensive books ever sold.
In 2018, a copy that was once part of the Duke of Portland’s collection was sold for $9.65 million by Christies in New York. The first edition, which Christie’s described as “a superlative copy in excellent condition, the plates with fresh and vibrant original coloring”, had belonged to Carl W. Knobloch Jr, an American businessman and conservationist who died in 2016.
Proceeds from the sale to an anonymous buyer went to the Knobloch Family Foundation to support their work in understanding and sustaining the natural world.
Another copy is held in the Mitchell library in Glasgow, and this will be loaned to the National Museum of Scotland to form part of the exhibition Audubon’s Birds of America.
Alongside, the museum will showcase 46 unbound prints, most of which have never been on display before.
Although Audubon is often held up as a quintessential American and legendary painter and naturalist, he was and is a controversial figure whose practices were criticised by the naturalist community, and who profited from the ownership of slaves, and showed disdain to the abolitionist movement. He also looted skulls from graves in an attempt to prove his now discredited theory that black and indigenous people were inferior to white people.
There is even controversy surroundng some of the birds in The Birds of America. 5 of the birds that he painted – Townsend’s finch, Cuvier’s kinglet, the carbonated swamp warbler, the small-headed flycatcher and the blue mountain warbler – have never been identified, some are juvenile birds mistaken for adults of a new species, such as Washington’s eagle, which is in all likelihood an immature bald eagle, and some are female birds named as different species from their male counterparts, for example, Selby’s flycatcher which is actually a female hooded warbler.
The exhibition will explore his story and Edinburgh’s integral role in the development of the book through letters, ephemera and taxidermy specimens, as well as the conservation lessons we can learn from his unprecedented publication.
Mark Glancy, the exhibition’s curator, said, “Birds of America is one of the most beautiful and famous books in the world, and the story of its creation is extraordinary. Most people have only seen digital copies, so this lavish exhibition gives visitors a once-in-a generation opportunity to view so many of the prints together in one place and appreciate the scale and ambition of Audubon’s “Great Work”. Audubon was, and remains, a contradictory and controversial figure and the exhibition will examine the myths and the reality behind this American icon.”
The exhibition runs from the 12th February to the 8th May and is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, who have raised more than £800 million for charities and good causes.
To find out more and buy tickets, visit the National Museum of Scotland’s website.