John James Audubon's 'Birds of America' now on view at Compton Verney

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John James Audubon's 'Birds of America' now on view at Compton Verney
Print depicting a winter hawk from Birds of America, by John James Audubon. Image © National Museums Scotland.

COMPTON VERNEY.- Compton Verney is presenting an opportunity to marvel at a beautiful display of 46 plates from one of the world’s most famous and valuable rare books, Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785–1851). Birds of America reveals the artistry and legacy of one of the world’s rarest, most coveted and - at almost 1-metre in height - largest books. Compton Verney is also delighted to be the first museum to host this exhibition, as it begins its UK tour from National Museums Scotland.

When it was first published as a series between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America was instantly recognised as a landmark work of ornithological illustration. It achieved international renown, not only due to the epic scale of Audubon’s ambition to paint every bird species in North America, which took almost 12 years to complete, but also the book’s spectacular, life-sized illustrations.

As visitors will see, it is still justly celebrated for its extraordinarily animated, dramatic and detailed images of different species and plants from their native habitats.

In recent years, Audubon’s achievements have been regarded in a different light. While his predecessors and contemporaries had illustrated birds looking stiff and unnatural, his pioneering approach had required him to pin stuffed subjects into the realistic poses he had observed in life and painting en plein air. Indeed, to accommodate the life-sized birds, the book was printed on paper which was almost 1m long but even then, some larger species had to be modeled in contorted positions, in order to fit them onto the page.

Furthermore, much as he is traditionally celebrated as the quintessential American woodsman, adventurer and naturalist, who identified over 20 species new to science, Audubon’s story is full of contradiction and controversy, and the exhibition looks at both the legend which built up around him and the more complex, problematic realities.

He profited from the ownership of enslaved people and showed disdain towards the abolitionist movement - all aspects of which have been overlooked until recently. His scientific standing is also disputed, with Audubon today accused of completely fabricating several species and misidentifying others.

While the exhibition will positively reflect on Audubon’s conservationist credentials it will not shy away from the fact that he was a prolific hunter, who killed many birds in order to complete his drawings. Reflecting this, the Compton Verney exhibition will bring the story up to the present day, looking at the conservation status of some of the species featured in Birds of America.

Today only 120 complete copies of Birds of America are known to exist and they are rarely on display. The beautiful framed plates featured in the Compton Verney exhibition - each measuring almost one metre (39 inches) in height - are drawn from the National Museums Scotland Library collection. The majority of which have never been shown in public and have undergone years of conservation treatment in preparation for this exhibition.

Featuring letters, books, manuscripts, photography, projections and films, the show explores how Birds of America came to influence natural sciences and asks what can we learn from its controversial legacy? It also considers the book’s historical context and why Audubon’s artistic style was so ground-breaking. Contrasting with the age in which Audubon created his genre-defining work, the exhibition acts as a critical examination of the impact human activity has made on the natural world during the intervening two centuries, inspiring the viewer to ponder what the future holds for our bird population against the backdrop of Compton Verney’s iconic park, which is an established haven for birdlife.

The Compton Verney display represents a unique opportunity to see so much of Audubon’s work in one place before taking part in a number of complimentary activities taking place throughout the 120-acre grounds, which act as a home to 110 varieties of resident and visiting birds, including; resident Great Crested Grebe’s, House Martin, Bull finch, king fisher, Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl, Mandarin Duck, Mute Swan’s and many more.

Geraldine Collinge, Compton Verney CEO says: “Birds of America is one of the most beautiful books in the world, and the story of its creation is extraordinary and challenging. This exhibition from National Museums Scotland gives visitors a once-in-a generation opportunity to view so many of the prints together in one place and appreciate the scale and ambition of Audubon’s “Great Work”. Audubon was, and remains, a contradictory and controversial figure and the exhibition examines the myths and the reality behind this American icon.”

John James Audubon

John James Audubon was born in Les Cayes, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), on 26 April 1785 and died in New York, on 27 January 1851. He was an American painter-naturalist. The illegitimate son of a chambermaid and a French sea captain, he was brought up in France and received instruction in drawing from J. -L. David. He moved to the USA in 1803 to avoid conscription in Napoleon's army and lived as a naturalist, hunter, and taxidermist, also earning some money as a portraitist and drawing master. His combined interests in art and ornithology grew into a plan to make a complete pictorial record of all the bird species of North America. Unable to find a publisher in America, Audubon spent three years in England (1826–9) and found an engraver and publisher in the London firm of Robert Havell and Son.

The Birds of America, from Original Drawings, with 435 Plates Showing 1,065 Figures appeared in four volumes of hand-tinted aquatints (1827–38) and now ranks among the most famous and prized books of the world. It was followed by The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America (1845–8), which was completed by his son John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–62) after the master's sight failed in 1846. His other son, Victor Gifford Audubon (1809–60), also assisted his father. Many of Audubon's original drawings are in the New-York Historical Society.

Compton Verney
Birds of America
1 July – 1 October 2023

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