Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The Birds of Amer­ica, Lon­don, 1827-1838. Col­lec­tion State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne. On dis­play.

JOHN James Audubon, a self-taught artist and nat­u­ral­ist, might have been il­le­git­i­mate with few fam­ily con­tacts and chron­i­cally short of money, but in 1826 he was so ob­sessed with draw­ing birds that he left his wife and chil­dren in Amer­ica and sailed to Eng­land in a des­per­ate bid to find a pub­lisher for his ex­tra­or­di­nary or­nitho­log­i­cal pic­tures.

It took him eight trips across the At­lantic and 12 years to find a pub­lisher, but the re­sult of his en­deav­ours, The Birds of Amer­ica, has been de­scribed as the most beau­ti­ful book ever pub­lished. To­day, only 120 copies re­main in­tact. Such is its rar­ity and fame that one copy sold at a Sotheby’s auc­tion in Lon­don in 2010 for $US11.5m, a record for a printed book sold at auc­tion.

In the his­tory of books and print­ing, The Birds of Amer­ica stands out as a pub­lish­ing event. It con­sists of 435 hand-coloured en­grav­ings that are bound in four vol­umes. It tow­ers over most other books, stand­ing more than 1m in height.

Of­ten re­ferred to as a ‘‘ dou­ble elephant fo­lio’’, this scale was cho­sen by Audubon as a means of cap­tur­ing the birds life-size. Even so, some of the larger birds are de­picted in awk­ward poses, cran­ing their necks at odd an­gles just to fit on to the page.

Audubon is renowned for his dra­matic de­pic­tions of birds in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. The vi­o­lence in some of his pic­tures shocked Bri­tish read­ers, such as quails be­ing at­tacked by a hawk, a rat­tlesnake at­tack­ing a nest of mock­ing­birds, and a hawk feed­ing on a green­winged teal.

Audubon also en­gaged in the whole­sale slaugh­ter of birds, ac­cord­ing to Duff HartDavis’s fas­ci­nat­ing book, Audubon’s Elephant. In seek­ing to in­crease the re­al­ism and an­i­ma­tion of his paint­ings, Audubon devel­oped a method of fix­ing the freshly shot bird with pins, skew­ers and wire to a board with graph pa­per so he could cap­ture pro­por­tions ac­cu­rately. He would then im­me­di­ately set to work, draw­ing and paint­ing be­fore the liv­ing colours be­gan to fade.

The killing of birds was a com­mon or­nitho­log­i­cal prac­tice at the time and while it might seem bar­baric now, it did con­trib­ute to 19th-cen­tury sci­en­tific knowl­edge of the nat­u­ral world and en­abled the il­lus­trated de­scrip­tion of species that are now ex­tinct. Audubon’s name is also now syn­ony­mous with con­ser­va­tion world­wide through the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety.

Given the rar­ity of The Birds of Amer­ica, it is per­haps sur­pris­ing that the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria is lucky enough to have a copy, which has its own in­trigu­ing back story. The li­brary for­tu­itously bought it in 1871 for £100 from a Wil­liam Stal­lard, who was dis­missed from his em­ploy­ment as a teacher for ex­ces­sive drink­ing. He even­tu­ally took his life by drown­ing in the Yarra River.

The book is presently on dis­play at the li­brary as part of its ex­hi­bi­tion Mir­ror of the World, and when I visit I’m shown the en­grav­ings by Des Cow­ley, rare printed col­lec­tions man­ager, who says when we look at Audubon’s en­grav­ings we are struck by the vis­ceral qual­ity of the nat­u­ral world, its beauty and its in­nate cru­elty.

‘‘ Audubon was one of the last great il­lus­tra­tors, and cer­tainly the most am­bi­tious, to is­sue his work in the form of hand-coloured en­grav­ings,’’ Cow­ley says. ‘‘ To achieve the re­sults he wanted, he trav­elled to Eng­land and Scot­land, and there worked with en­graver Wil­liam Lizars in Ed­in­burgh and, later, with Robert Havell Jr in Lon­don.

‘‘ The process of print­ing en­grav­ings via cop­per­plate, with its ca­pac­ity for re­pro­duc­ing fine line and de­tail, was largely su­per­seded in books by the devel­op­ment of lithog­ra­phy, a cheaper and there­fore at­trac­tive op­tion for pub­lish­ers.

‘‘ Audubon’s Birds of Amer­ica ar­guably rep­re­sents the crown­ing achieve­ment of the great cy­cle of en­graved botan­i­cal and nat­u­ral his­tory books pub­lished in Eng­land and Europe in the late 18th and early 19th cen­turies.’’

Hand-coloured en­grav­ing, 1000mm x 650mm

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