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  • Karen Lee Street

Birds of America

John James Audubon

A short post to commemorate the death on this day (27 January) of ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785 – 1851).

Audubon was born in Haiti, spent much of his childhood in France, and emigrated to America, initially to run his father's 284 acre farm in Mill Grove, about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Audubon had been fascinated by birds since childhood and he began his study of them in earnest at Mill Grove. He also met his wife, Lucy Bakewell, there.

Audubon had the idea to put together an illustrated book of all the North American birds he could find and began by traveling in the south, studying and drawing birds. Lucy supported the family by tutoring the children of plantation owners.

Eventually, Audubon took the bird portraits he had completed to England, where they were much admired, and he found a a printer for his book.

His master work, Birds of America was printed between 1837 and 1838. It contains 435 hand-colored prints of North American birds, reproduced from hand-engraved plates. This first edition was 3.5 feet tall and Audubon found inventive ways to pose the birds within 'the frame' as his goal was to depict them life-sized.

Only 120 complete sets of this first edition are known to exist and most are owned by institutions.

A complete edition was sold by Sotheby's in London for £7.3 million, which at the time made it the most expensive book sold at auction in the world. (That record has now been broken.)

While these incredible books are rare (and very expensive), high resolution prints of 'Audubon's birds' can be viewed on the Audubon Society's site and can be downloaded gratis. (Supporting the Audubon Society is even better.)

Audubon's bird illustrations and notes were invaluable when researching Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru. When Poe lived in Philadelphia, the city was home to one of the largest bird collections in the world at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Both Audubon and Poe would have been aware of it.

It is also likely that Poe was aware of Audubon's Birds of America, given that it was much feted, but I have yet to find any record of Poe commenting on this magnificent work.

These Audubon illustrations are from Audubon Society site; the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania, and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection provided the images to the Audubon Society.

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