11 February 2011

Jean-Jacques Audubon: naturalist and artist

You have just missed the Sale of Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick, 2nd Lord Hesketh, held in Dec 2010 in London. The selection of books, manuscripts and drawings on offer represented the cream of this distinguished collection, built up by successive generations of the Fermor-Hesketh family. The items showed the best of every aspect of the bibliophile's endeavour: typography, illustration, illumination and fine binding, plus literary and historical importance.

The majority of these books had been acquired by Frederick, 2nd Baron Hesketh (1916-1955), who bought them at a great time. Lord Hesketh acquired a magnificent subscriber's copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America; a crisp, textually complete folio in an early binding; and other masterpieces of natural history.

Audubon’s Birds of America sold in London for £7,321,250, establishing a new world record auction price for any printed book. The previous auction record for a printed book was £5,565,110. Amazingly this too was for a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, sold in New York in Mar 2000.

Hooded Merganser

So who was Audubon and why was a folio of his art worth more than a moderately sized palace? Jean-Jacques Audubon (1785–1851) had a less than auspicious start in life. He was born in the French colony of Saint Domingue, the illegitimate son of a French naval officer-sugar plantation owner-slave trader and a Creole chambermaid who died soon after the lad’s birth. A slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue in 1788 convinced the father to sell his holdings and return to France with his French son, as quickly as possible. When he was an adult, Jean-Jacques Audubon sailed for America, Anglicised his name, learned English and was set up in business by an old friend of his father.

With the friend's assistance, Audubon continued trying his luck at various business endeavours in Ohio, before living in Henderson Kentucky from 1810-19 . A sawmill business Audubon ran in Kentucky failed in 1819, partly due to a wide spread credit crunch. But mainly he failed because he spent too much time looking at birds to worry about practical business matters. Aubudon found himself in serious financial trouble, with a wife and two young sons to support, so he and the family travelled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Thankfully his wife found employment as a teacher and governess, and supported the family financially for a very long time.

He began conducting simple experiments on local birds, checking their nesting habits, drawing them in flight and recording their behaviour on the ground. Back in France for a family trip, young Audubon metthe naturalist Charles-Marie D'Orbigny, who taught Audubon proper, scientific methods of bird research.

In America again, Audubon joined Shawnee hunters on their expeditions, learning their methods and recording the details on paper. Audubon spent 20 years travelling throughout the length and breadth of America, painting every different species of bird he encountered. The birds were posed as he saw them in real life — feeding their young, hunting, eating and flying. In time he added animals and fish to his collection, but the birds remained the stars.


In 1826, in middle age, Audubon risked everything and took his portfolio of drawings to Britain. He seemed to have been very well received - British collectors loved his images of the pristine parts of America’s wilderness, so he easily raised enough money to begin publishing his Birds of America. The work consisted of 435 hand-collared, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates.

The cost of printing the entire work was huge, paid for by subscriptions, exhibitions and commissions. King George IV said he loved Audubon’s work and became a subscriber to the book. In Sept 1827, Audobon approached Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford in her Leeds home, Temple Newsam. He convinced her to subscribe to the first volume of the gigantic work back then, and today a rare volume is still on display in Temple Newsam. The British Royal Society, a learned society for science, elected Audubon a fellow and made him even more famous.

John James and his wife had two children who survived into adulthood, including the naturalist and painter John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-62). John W Audubon, bless his heart, was involved in publishing John James’ books.

Various collections can be visited today, 160 years after his death: the preparatory watercolours for Birds of America are in the New York Historical Society while the Stark Museum of Art in Texas owns and exhibits JJ's personal copy of Birds of America. Milwaukee Art Museum had an exhibition in 2008-9 called Catesby, Audubon and the Discovery of a New World: Prints of the Flora and Fauna of America. North Carolina Museum of Art has all four volumes of  Audubon’s The Birds of America which are now on view.

The John James Audubon State Park in Kentucky (below) is set along the banks of the Ohio River near Henderson, an area that had been very familiar to the young artist. The widow of JJ Audubon's great-grandson, Leonard Tyler, had negotiated for a large private collector to place her  Audubon material on loan in the new museum which opened in July 1938. Today the museum interprets Audubon’s life through his art and personal memorabilia, framed within a timeline of world events.  Surrounded by unspoiled, natural beauty, visitors find  a wildlife Observation Room; the Discovery Centre with hands-on exhibits; and the Learning Centre, where the park naturalist and art educator conduct environmental and art programmes.

John James Audubon State Park and museum in Kentucky


andrew1860 said...

Great post. I love John James Audubon and his work as he was a Creole and lived and worked in Mobile, AL and New Orleans both places I have lived.

Hermes said...

I saw the auction catalogue and loved it but didn't know the background. What a talent and observational skill.

M said...

Great post! Audubon has always interested me, especially since he didn't have much training in art (from what I understand). Did you find any discussion about any other types of training, apart from his time with D'Orbigny?

Hels said...

this was a part of the world I knew very little about. But when Audubon moved to Britain to publish and sell his work, the Brits were impressed with the utterly different landscapes and exotic fauna. If he had been an artist in New York or Chicago, the magic may not have been the same.

Hels said...


nod... I didn't know the background either.. my knowledge about bird art was previously limited to the Gould League. But that catalogue got me searching every art book I could lay my hands on.

By the way, did you notice that Audubon’s Birds of America sold for £7,321,250, an eye wateringly high price *sigh*

Hels said...

Interesting question. I put "naturalist" in the heading before "artist" because he struck me as having a scientific interest in birds first. But my decision wasn't evidence-based.

Alexander Wilson wrote American Ornithology, a nine volume set that was published from 1808-14. He was a Scottish man who moved to the USA several decades before Audubon - I wonder if Wilson had any influence on Audubon's art.

Hermes said...


How this be dearer than say a Caxton? I think the most beautiful book in the world is the Kelmscott Chaucer.

columnist said...

Thanks Hels, that is a wonderfully illuminating potted history. I come across works by Audubon at auction - usually prints and whilst I find them pretty, they are not on my particular radar for works of art. The prices of the originals are indeed amazingly high.

Hels said...

I hear you.

The most magnificent books I have ever seen were medieval manuscripts where the text and the illuminations were equally spectacular. But apparently the market suggests that Audubon's works are more important, at least financially speaking.

Hels said...

I think that is the beauty of history and art history blogs. You don't have to read a PhD thesis of 100,000 words, to keep at least in touch with major events/works. I may not look at Audubon again, but at least I am familiar with his life and times now.

Joseph said...

I am so glad they built the John James Audubon State Park in that part of Kentucky. It is very wild country.

Hels said...

I like the description of JJ Audubon that said he dressed as a woodsman and let his hair grow long, during his stay in Britain. It sounds exactly like the Kentucky State Park, named for him.

canvas artwork said...

its was difficult times but the art produced was another level for its time

Hels said...

canvas artwork

true true. It was stunning because he studied the birds in amazing detail. I have never heard of any other artist to going to such endless care, to get the birds in flight, in nests, feeding, swimming etc.

Hels said...

I will draw your attention to a new book published this year (2011) by Uni of Nebraska Press:
"John James Audubon's Journal of 1826", edited by Daniel Patterson.

1826 was the definitive year in Audubon's career when he gambled his family's future on succeeding abroad.