John James Audubon: The Birdman | On this Day

It’s considered a landmark of ornithology, and it was published one hundred and ninety years ago: John James Audubon’s massive Birds of America. Born in Haiti, Audubon had a restless life spread across continents, but along the way he transformed himself into a leading expert on the birdlife of North America. As James Ferguson explains, his legacy in science and conservation still endures

Illustration by Rohan MitchellJohn James Audubon’s Scarlet Ibis, from the landmark Birds of America. Courtesy The National Audubon Society

Of all the weird and wonderful pictures that have ended up in my house over the years, there is one I particularly like. Bought ages ago by my wife from a junk shop, it depicts a pair of Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber). In fact, only one of the birds is properly scarlet, its long narrow bill reaching over the head of its mostly brown juvenile companion, as it stares out into what appears to be a lagoon. Of course, these spectacular creatures will be well known to anyone who has visited Trinidad’s protected Caroni Swamp bird sanctuary, where they roost every evening in the mangrove trees after their daily commute across the Gulf of Paria to feed on crustaceans on the Venezuelan coast. The Scarlet Ibis is also one of Trinidad and Tobago’s two national birds.

This image, decorative yet rigorously detailed, was produced by the naturalist and painter John James Audubon in a massively ambitious project that involved eighty-seven sets of five illustrations, totalling 435 hand-coloured plates that were published over an eleven-year period. Birds of America began its extended publication in Edinburgh 190 years ago this year, in 1827, and stands as a landmark in ornithology, printing technology, and marketing.

By the time of Birds of America, Audubon was an American citizen, but his roots were in the Caribbean, even though his parents were French. He was born as Jean Rabin in 1785 in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where his father, formerly a naval commander, had bought a sugarcane plantation. He was illegitimate, his mother a chambermaid who died when he was only six months old. As the tensions that would culminate in the Haitian Revolution mounted, his father decided to take the three-year-old to Nantes in France, where young Jean was formally adopted by his father and his (highly forgiving) wife.

Audubon’s childhood was spent in France during the tumultuous period of the 1789 Revolution and its aftermath. He seems to have had a natural affinity with wildlife, and with birds in particular, and loved walking in the Breton countryside. After a brief and unsuccessful experiment with seafaring, he was sent on a false passport by his father to the newly independent United States in 1803, in order to avoid conscription into the French military. His father had meanwhile sold up in Saint-Domingue and bought a lead mining business in Pennsylvania. With his new Anglicised name, he arrived in New York, ready to make a fortune.

Or so his father hoped. But Audubon was a restless character, and his career was erratic and colourful. He married and had children, but he also tried, and failed, to run a trading business, and ended up bankrupt and in jail. At one point he turned to hunting to feed his family, dressing as a frontiersman and wielding a tomahawk. But, throughout, he kept drawing, collecting, and taking notes. His method was unusual: he would first shoot the specimen in question with fine shot, then prop the dead bird up with wires to achieve a lifelike effect. All were drawn life-size, even large turkeys and eagles — hence their sometimes contorted appearance as they were fitted into sheets no bigger than thirty-nine by twenty-six inches.

Slowly, Audubon’s collection expanded. While his wife Lucy worked teaching the children of wealthy plantation owners, he also gave art lessons, and this enabled him to travel and begin his vast enterprise of drawing every bird in America. By 1824 he had amassed enough drawings to approach a publisher in Philadelphia; he was flatly rejected.

 

So it was that Audubon, with his hoard of over three hundred drawings, arrived in Liverpool in the autumn of 1826, looking to publish and promote his life’s work. His reception in Britain was warmer than he could have hoped for. He gave talks, organised exhibitions, and accepted commissions. His frontiersman image also proved highly marketable, and “the American woodsman,” as he was dubbed, became something of a celebrity. This he used to gather subscriptions from the great and the good, including King George IV, who signed up to buy a copy of his work in advance. Committing these subscriptions and his own money to the project, he did not need a publisher, and took all the profits himself. His investment has been calculated at $115,000 (around $2 million at today’s value), but selling some two hundred sets at $870 each brought in about $175,000. Subscribers received a fresh set of five hand-coloured printed engravings, based on his drawings, every month or two. An accompanying explanatory text was also published in five volumes.

This vast “Double Elephant Folio,” printed in Edinburgh, was followed by a smaller and more affordable edition, again sold to subscribers, and then more editions followed. Finally wealthy, Audubon returned to the US, where he bought a twenty-acre estate by the Hudson in northern Manhattan. He continued to draw new species, travelling from Newfoundland to Florida, and published Ornithological Biographies in 1841. He was working on a book on mammals when his health began to fail, and he died on 27 January, 1851, at his Manhattan home.

Reproductions of Audubon’s images are widely available these days, but if you should wish to acquire one of the original two hundred sets — as did a Qatari sheikh at an auction at Christie’s in London in 2000 — you would have to pay something like £8.8 million. But Audubon’s real legacy perhaps lies in the National Audubon Society, a non-profit environmental pressure group, with five hundred chapters across the US and many affiliated groups in the Caribbean. Established in 1905, it educates the public about conservation and protection and operates sanctuaries in many different habitats.

Audubon’s best-known drawing is probably the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), the large wader with electric red-orange plumage. In his depiction, it is bending its long, elegant neck down at the water’s edge (and hence neatly filling the page). Given Audubon’s early life, it is suitable that this iconic image is of a bird that is still today found in Haiti — though under threat — as well across the Caribbean from Trinidad and Tobago to the Bahamas. His notes on the Flamingo, taken at the Florida Keys, are largely factual and rather dry, but one brief section reveals the sheer joy and excitement that bird-watching always gave him:

Ah! reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast! I thought I had now reached the height of all my expectations, for my voyage to the Floridas was undertaken in a great measure for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands.