The sky was serene, the air perfumed, and thousands of melodious notes, from birds unknown to me, urged me to arise and go in pursuit of those beautiful and happy creatures. Then I would find myself furnished with large and powerful wings, and, cleaving the air like an eagle, I would fly off and by a few joyous bounds overtake the objects of my desire … (N)ow, good reader, the task is accomplished. In health and in sickness, in adversity and prosperity, in summer and winter, amidst the cheers of friends and the scowls of foes, I have depicted The Birds of America, and studied their habits as they roamed at large in their peculiar haunts.
- John James Audubon
We see John James Audubon now as a great artist/naturalist, however during his time, many scoffed at his efforts, considering him neither an artist nor a scientist. Thankfully he disregarded all naysayers and let his great passion drive him to ultimately create one of the most iconic and sought after illustrated series of all time, The Birds of North America.
Roberta J. M. Olson’s very substantial 448 page Rizzoli tome, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America, focuses on the wonderful watercolors that Audubon created, (which were to become the basis of the engraved plates of the legendary 1827-38 Havell edition of The Birds of America), and shares Audubon’s fascinating personal history, innovations and techniques.
Audubon’s fresh and vibrant images have an almost cinematic quality to them, and, in fact, I’ve used later editions of these prints to bring that very same freshness and color to many of my own decorating projects.
On the subject of decoration (and particularly the intersection of Audubon and decoration), I was quite amused to read an anecdote from the Bagotbook’s Blog entitled, Temple Newsam, John James Audubon & Lady Hertford (Vandal)
One room features American Birds in a Chinese Garden. This celebrates what can only be described as an act of cultural vandalism. In September 1827 John James Audubon visited Lady (Frances) Hertford and persuaded her to become a subscriber to his The Birds of America; in due course she received the first volume. What would you do with a book like that? If you were sitting in your Blue Drawing Room, decorated with the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper that the Prince of Wales had given you in 1806, what would you do with this double-elephant book containing 100 life-size, hand-coloured aquatints based on sketches drawn from nature during Audubon’s journeys into the North American wilds, if you were one of the only 175 subscribers in Britain to have a copy of this fine book? Lady Hertford knew exactly what she wanted done with it. She (or more probably a servant at her command) cut out 28 of the birds from 10 plates and pasted them onto the wallpaper. Luckily, Lady Hertford died before any more volumes were published.
- Bagotbook’s Blog
It might interest you to know, (if you don’t already), that an original bound set of Audubon’s The Birds of America sold for $8.8 million dollars in 2000, which was a world record price for a book. I can imagine the heirs of Lady Hertford might still be shaking their heads at her seemingly irreverent repurposing, though I’m thinking that many of Lady Hertford’s guests would have known nothing of Audubon’s genius, had they not been invited to her drawing room to see this inadvertent PR move!
In any case, I encourage all of you to buy a copy of Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America. While there are quite a few books out there covering the subject, this is by far one of the most beautiful and engaging. An absolute delight!