The Birds of North America (1827–1839)
Stunning as they are today, we can only imagine how extraordinary Audubon’s artwork was almost two hundred years ago. The lavish paintings were reproduced in impressive style, but it was the sheer scale of the images that was also exciting; almost life size, each page of his publication was reproduced on papers measuring 39 by 26 inches. Unsuprisingly, Audubon is considered one of the greatest bird artists, and is rightly famous for his ‘double elephant-folio’ size volumes published between 1827 and 1838.
Audubon’s plates broke new ground in abandoning the traditional ‘magpie and stump’ manner of portraying birds. He set his birds in a background of their own habitat and visually described the dynamics of their everyday struggle for survival, depicting them in motion, often in flight or in pursuit of prey. These plates were not meant for scientists, working to describe and identify species, they were intended to create an impact on the viewer and providing an awe-inspiring sense of the American wildlife, and they did exactly that.
Audubon spent many months each year travelling through the North American countryside observing, shooting and painting birds. Unable to find a suitable engraver and publisher in America, Audubon travelled to Britain in 1826 with more than 200 bird paintings in his portfolio. Audubon gained their quick attention. ‘I have been received here in a manner not to be expected during my highest enthusiastic hopes’. Some of his drawings were exhibited in Edinburgh and there he met with the engraver W H Lizars who made several copper plates of his paintings, but was halted by industrial unrest. When Audubon visited London to give a paper to the Royal Society he met Robert Havel and his son, both excellent engravers and painters. Audubon transferred his project to London where over the next twelve years the engravings, printing and colouring of the magnificent plates were carried out to great acclaim.
It was only when the publication of The Birds of North America was completed that Audubon at last had an income to support his family, but by this time he was 53 years of age and the best period of his life had passed. In 1843 he embarked on a new project and further travels, but his failing health took its toll and he returned to his family in New York, staying there until his death in 1851. His son, John Woodhouse Aubudon continued his father’s passions and created many great artworks of his own.
Name John James Audubon
Collection Natural History Museum
Category Galleries & Museums
Date 1785 – 1851