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 …