I wanted to see this exhibition because these bird illustrations are world famous but I was completely unprepared for the controversy that surrounds Audubon.
The exhibition of Audubon’s Birds of America is based on an incomplete volume of the prints owned by The National Museum of Scotland. In addition to the prints there are letters, books, manuscripts, projections, films and artefacts – all of which come together to present a fascinating insight into this artist.
John James Audubon (1785- 1851) was an American self taught artist who wanted to make a name for himself. He decided to paint every bird in America. His unique selling point was that every bird was depicted life size.
He was highly critical of his contemporaries who used taxidermy specimens for their artwork. Instead he captured all of the birds that he painted. He kept some alive for a few days before they died or were killed. Others he killed immediately and then arranged them in poses using wire to hold out wings or to suspend them by their necks or feet. By contorting them like this he was able to paint them in a way that was not conventionally scientific and therefore appeared to be more appealing.
He was unsuccessful in finding financial backing to fulfill his project in America so he travelled to Scotland where he was met with enthusiasm and secured financial support from important investors.
This enabled him to employ the engravers William Lizars and Robert Havell to engrave his paintings onto large copper plates. Once printed, colour was applied by expert colourists.
Unlike the original paintings the prints were reproducible and he set up a subscription scheme whereby collectors could gradually collect all of the prints.
I visited the exhibition with Karen Parker of intersilient. The exhibition gave us so much to discuss.
We both wished the original paintings still existed, but I guess we’re not alone, it would be interesting to compare them to the very accomplished engravings.
We were not convinced his work was any better than his contemporaries.
Some parts of the pictures seemed very accomplished whilst other parts were less impressive, for example the dripping blood from prey animals seemed very stylized.
Several birds that were presented as different species were in fact later identified to be the same species but juveniles.
A bird that he named The Bird of Washington, appears to be a large species of eagle. No one else has ever seen this bird and that has now been revealed beyond reasonable doubt to be completely fabricated by him. We found that extraordinary.
Audubon claimed to be pro conservation but shot birds in vast numbers including the once plentiful passenger pigeons which are now extinct.
The curators of this exhibition did not shy away from presenting all the known facts about Audubon. It is difficult to separate the man from the work.
Audubon was involved in the slave trade, falsified scientific data, invented species, discredited his contemporaries and did not credit his collaborators.
As this has all come to light many societies associated with his name are today dissociating themselves from him.
I can understand that. Because of all the negative associations it is the sort of thing you can imagine that institutions may not be willing to exhibit. But I am glad that I saw this exhibition – a real insight. Catch it if you can.
This touring exhibition from National Museum of Scotland finishes at Compton Verney on 1st October.