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