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The American Museum in Britain John James Audubon: Fur and Feather
February 21, 2012  | 

John James Audubon is known for his remarkable studies of American birds depicted in their natural habitats.  His The Birds of North America (1827-1839), in which he identified 25 new species and a number of new sub-species, is considered to be one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.  However, his studies of mammals are less well-known.  To complement The Compassionate Eye:  Birds and Beasts from the American Museum’s Print Collection, on view in the Exhibition Gallery from 10 March to 1 July 2012, the American Museum in Britain will display twelve folio engravings by this great ornithologist, naturalist and painter, in Claverton Manor at the start of the period room trail from 10 March to 28 October 2012.

John James Audubon’s exotic and often romanticised life has been widely chronicled; searching ‘Audubon’ on the internet produces over ten million hits.  Born Jean-Jacques in Haiti in 1785, he was the illegitimate son of Captain Jean Audubon and his French-Creole mistress.  He was raised in France, received some naval training, learned to love nature and wildlife, and began to draw.  To escape conscription into Napoleon’s army the eighteen year old Audubon was sent to America to manage his father’s new estate, Mill Grove, near Philadelphia.  Although Audubon returned to France he finally settled in America in 1806.

His earliest studies of birds date back to 1804 but work for his epic The Birds of America demanded a more peripatetic way of life and in 1820 Audubon began his travels, supporting himself as a portrait painter and drawing master.  His aim was to represent the authentic colours and detailed characteristics of each species life-size.  He collected his own specimens, usually by shooting them, in order to record the colours before they faded.  Wiring the birds in life-like positions, he transcribed their outlines as accurate pencil drawings.

In 1824, Audubon took his portfolio to Philadelphia, then the nation’s intellectual, scientific, and publishing centre, to seek financial support and a publisher.  Posturing as an “American woodsman”, Audubon dressed in buckskins and slicked his shoulder-length hair with bear grease but his unconventional appearance and lack of academic credentials put off some of Philadelphia’s intelligentsia.  He soon abandoned this scheme and a year later travelled to Britain where he had more success with the engravers, Havells of Reading.  The engraved copper plates were produced directly from his life-size drawings and each print was hand-coloured following Audubon’s precise instructions.  All the Birds were printed on double-elephant sized paper (29½ x 39½ in) which meant even the largest species could be depicted.  The folio of 435 plates was originally sold by subscription with each set costing about $1,050. 

No less significant for their artistic quality or zoological accuracy are the plates from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-48), a second marathon project begun in 1841.  These were published in Philadelphia where Audubon employed the printer, J. T. Bowen, and used a different medium, lithograph, on a smaller paper size, Imperial (33 x 22 in).  However, his health was failing so his sons, Victor and John, played an important role in the completion of this final project.  He died on 27 January 1851.

John James Audubon changed forever the way in which nature is illustrated.  His painstakingly executed, life-size images underscore his genius and confirm his place as one of the great American artists of the 19th century.

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