The long, exhausting project was worth it. Bronwyn Waterson called Audubon’s book, The Birds of America (published in parts between 1827 and 1838), the most beautiful book ever published. Since only 120 copies are known to have survived till today, it may not surprise book lovers that one copy sold at a Sotheby's auction in London in 2010 for £7.3 million or $US 11.5 million. This was apparently a record for a printed book sold at auction. The 435 hand-coloured engravings, bound in four volumes, must have been worth every penny.
Perhaps it was the height of this book, 1+ metre, that grabbed the buyers’ attention. But perhaps the height was itself problematic. I was thinking that even if I could have afforded the £7.3 million, it would be difficult to find a perfect location in the house to place such a large object.
So if The Birds of America is as rare and as famous as suggested, how did the State Library of Victoria obtain a copy? LaTrobe Journal had lots to say about a certain William Stallard. The state librarian A.B Foxcroft at the time left a handwritten note (dated 1871) to say that Mr William Stallard, the Principal of Western College Geelong, offered the Birds of America to the Melbourne Public Library for £200. It would cost twice that to replace, Mr Stallard had written. But in a curt memo, the President of the Trustees, the infamous "hanging judge" Sir Redmond Barry, noted that £150 was too much. The book was eventually obtained for a very modest £100. A further £16 was spent on restoring the bindings on three of the four volumes.
There is no evidence for when or how Stallard acquired the Birds of America, presumably in England rather than in a British colony. Perhaps the purchase of the Birds was the product of another, more affluent time, before the hardship of colonial life dragged William Stallard into the pits of despair. Apparently Stallard had been dismissed from his prestigious employment for excessive drinking. He eventually took his life by drowning in the Yarra River. What a sad end to a promising life, but how fortunate for the State Library.
The book is on display at the State Library of Victoria as part of its 2013 exhibition, Mirror of the World. Using many of the rare, beautiful and historically significant books held in the Library's collections, the exhibition is exploring five important themes:
- 'Books and ideas', outlining the early history of books and printing
- 'The book and the imagination', looking at the way books and texts are imaginatively created
- 'Exploring the world', investigating how books have been used to explore and document the world including, its landscape, topography, inhabitants, flora and fauna
- 'Art and nature', looking at how botanical illustrations unite the scientific and artistic worlds
- 'The artist and the book', highlighting the art of the book and the role of the artist.