During the late 1820s, colleagues, publishers, and potential customers alike would mutter warnings to John James Audubon that his plan to publish The Birds of America could never succeed, for the proposed book was utterly impractical—too large, too expensive. But when Audubon opened his great portfolio of drawings, a silence would descend on the room. “The effect was like magic,” said John Wilson, as the images conveyed their viewers to the distant and mysterious land of America:
The spectator imagined himself in the forest…birds in motion or at rest, in their glee and their gambols, their loves and their wars, singing or caressing or brooding or preying or tearing one another into pieces.
Even the commercially astute were seduced by the Audubon birds. When the eyes of the experienced Edinburgh printmaker William Lizars fell upon the peregrine falcon he stood speechless, his arms hanging limply at his sides, before he gathered his wits and exclaimed, “I will engrave and publish this.” As with many a declaration made in the heat of passion, Lizars was unable to deliver on his promise, for he lacked the resources to maintain the flow of prints that the project demanded.
Duff Hart-Davis, Audubon’s most recent biographer, informs us that at over a yard tall and two hundred pounds in weight, The Birds of America is large enough to crush a coffee table. In the cold light of morning William Lizars must surely have asked himself who would pay the modern equivalent of $40,000 for such a book, and patiently wait the twelve years it would take to complete? Yet in the end it was Audubon who got his way, for so in love was he with his birds that he felt he must depict them life-sized or not at all; and to so portray a trumpeter swan or a wild turkey only “double elephant”—the largest-sized paper available in the nineteenth century—would do, and even then it was occasionally necessary to bend the larger birds into awkward poses.
Yet over the years it’s been the unlikely format of The Birds of America that has helped to increase its value on the market, for so few people could afford the work that only around 170 sets were ever made. One hundred and nineteen remain in existence, and so coveted are they that decades often pass before a set is offered for sale. The last copy auctioned—in March 2000—sold to Sheik Hamad Ben-Al Thani of Qatar for more than $8.8 million, and such is the quality of the work that as its new owner turns the thick, textured linen-stock pages, admiring the 435 plates, he will find them as vivid and sturdy as they were at the time of printing more than 150 years ago. And the birds. It’s their eyes that arrest the viewer, for they look out at you with such knowingness and emotion as to take the breath away.
Perhaps the most famous of Audubon’s images depicts a family of mockingbirds harassing a rattlesnake which is attacking them at their nest. The reptile is shown open-mouthed as it lunges at a terrified victim, while a second member of the beleaguered family, desperate perhaps to rescue its fellow, pecks at the snake’s eye from behind. For all its apparent authenticity this illustration is an invention, for it was widely known even in Audubon’s time that rattlesnakes do not habitually climb trees; nor do they often eat mockingbirds. Yet so powerful is this frontier allegory that it begs viewers to suspend their disbelief. And herein lies the wonder of The Birds of America, a work filled with images of nature so intimately observed that they continue to astonish, yet so rendered as to be considered by the literal-minded as palpable fiction.
Although Audubon’s biographers are now legion, two new ones join the flock this year. American William Souder is described as an “avid outdoorsman” and contributor to The Washington Post, while Duff Hart-Davis is a retired assistant editor of London’s Daily Telegraph and a commentator on English country life. Hart-Davis’s hardcover volume is an illustrated account of Audubon’s sojourn in Britain, while Souder’s less lavish hardcover is a combined biography of Audubon and his rival, Alexander Wilson. Intriguingly, while both agree on the essential facts, each evokes a very different portrait of America’s most famous naturalist.
Audubon’s life seems to have been one long preparation for producing The Birds of America. He was born Jean Rabin, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a chambermaid in what is today Haiti, and according to Souder he “showed a curiosity about nature as soon as he could walk.” When he was six his father took him to France where he was accepted by his father’s wife, taking the name Audubon and later the Christian name John. An unremarkable pupil who cared for little except drawing birds, nonetheless at age eleven he entered into the naval academy in Rochefort. There the young Audubon became an accomplished musician, dancer, and fencer, but did so poorly at his studies that he was dismissed after three years. Revolutionary France was a dangerous place for an able young man, and John’s father, fearing that he would be pressed into the service of the military, sent his son to America to superintend a farm near Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, which he had purchased before leaving the Caribbean. By the time John junior left France his only achievement was the two hundred drawings of European birds that he’d completed while he should have been studying.
Perhaps fathers have always felt they know what’s best for their sons, yet it strikes me as strange that Audubon senior did not take those two hundred drawings as an indication of his son’s true vocation. Instead he packed him off to a career in farm management, and the result was predictable. Mill Farm languished, and if you wanted to meet John Audubon you were advised to head into the woods where he spent most of his waking hours in hunting and drawing. Some of his happiest days, he later said, were spent in the company of a pair of wood peewees that nested in a grotto above Perkiomen Creek near the farm. They eventually became so trusting that he could hold the dear creatures in his cupped hands.
At 5‘8” (he frequently exaggerated his height by several inches) with long dark hair, bright hazel eyes, and an aristocratic face, the young John Audubon was strikingly handsome, which, combined with his strong French accent and boyish vitality, made him irresistibly likable. At least young Lucy Bakewell thought so. Her family had migrated from England to an adjacent farm known as Fatland Ford, and she seems to have fallen so deeply in love with her Frenchman that she did not demur when, three days after their marriage on April 5, 1808, John took her from the relative sophistication and security of her life in Pennsylvania to the frontier town of Louisville, Kentucky. There they resided for two years in the Indian Queen Hotel amid enough squalor, frontier roughness, and lack of privacy to test the truest of hearts. Worst of all, perhaps, Lucy had nothing to do; but even so, when writing to a cousin in England she spoke only of “the excellent disposition” of her new husband, and of a mysterious, powerful attraction that “adds very much to the happiness of married life.”
With an entire continent of birds to explore, business seemed dull stuff indeed to John Audubon, who soon moved his growing family a further two hundred miles down the Ohio to the tiny settlement of Henderson, and thence to Louisiana. As one business venture after another failed and Audubon became mired ever deeper in debt, he took to deserting Lucy and his two young sons for long periods as he traveled in search of birds. It was only when Lucy came to the disappointing realization that it was she who must somehow financially support the family that her unconditional love began to fade. She soon found a job teaching in a local school, yet she never let on to an outsider that her husband was anything but a paragon of virtue.
Souder finds it curious that in letters Audubon addressed Lucy as “my friend,” and sees as merely quaint his use of “thee” and “thou.” Hart-Davis clears away the mystery by pointing out that Audubon learned his English among Pennsylvania Quakers. Despite this lapse, Souder’s account of Audubon’s marriage is by far the superior of the two, providing a tender and perceptive record of their love in all its vicissitudes. While they were together John Audubon’s failure as a provider seems hardly to have mattered, for even after he had been gone for years at a stretch, jailed for debt, and living off his wife’s income, the couple could still be blissfully happy in each other’s company. Souder tells how, when they settled at Beech Woods, Louisiana, following many privations, “the Audubons would ride together to a small lake where, while Lucy swam naked, Audubon lolled on the beach admiring her.” When they were separated, however, a great fear and doubting caught at John Audubon’s heart, a condition that reached its climax while he was in England trying to get The Birds of America published and fully subscribed.
With his fortunes changing by the day, there were times when Audubon seemed to be on the brink of madness. He agonized about asking Lucy to join him, but he never did say how lost he was without her, nor could he bring himself to command her to leave her job as a schoolteacher. Tragically, she seems to have read his diffidence as indifference toward her, and with letters taking months to get from hand to hand a gulf opened between the pair that was seemingly as wide and salt-filled as the Atlantic Ocean. But when, after an absence of three years, Audubon arrived with the dawn at Lucy’s house in Louisiana, unannounced and with tears streaming down his cheeks, the gulf closed in an instant.
Audubon’s character has proved an endless source of fascination, for he lived by a morality seemingly foreign to most of us. He was, to begin with, an outrageous liar. Souder catches him out with some whoppers such as that his father was an admiral, that he studied under the great French artist David, and that he had hunted with Daniel Boone. Indeed Audubon was characterized by a contemporary as rivaling Baron Munchausen in his lying, his published writings, about his experiences in the wilderness, being lambasted as “a tissue of the grossest falsehoods ever attempted to be palmed upon the credulity of mankind.” In truth Audubon seems to have freely lied about everything except his birds and his beloved Lucy—as if they were the only real things in the world to him. His enemies hated him for it. The English naturalist Charles Waterton, incensed at some of Audubon’s misrepresentations, went so far as to write to his rival George Ord in an attempt to dig up muck on Audubon’s personal life. To his credit Ord wrote back, “He is a well-meaning sort of man, though a great liar.”