Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Final Fruition of the Quality Quadrupeds

                       John James Audubon has finished his magnum opus, he is famous on both sides of the Atlantic, he has impressed Kings, Queens and Presidents, for once in his life he has money in the bank and a nice little place on the banks of the Hudson. 

Minnie's Land - Audubon's little place on the Hudson River

So, do you imagine for one moment that he’s going to spend his remaining days sitting on the back porch, smoking his pipe or tending his garden? No Siree, let’s face it, that isn’t even going to cross a man like John J’s mind.  Not when there’s the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America to be getting on with, (and let’s be honest, there aren’t anything but viviparous quadrupeds in North America). 

J J Audubon & J Bachman - Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America

The plan was to produce two ‘atlas’ volumes, at elephant size, containing 150 hand coloured lithographic plates, together with three Royal size octavo volumes of explanatory text. Unlike the double-elephant Birds of America, the Quadrupeds was produced entirely in America, with an initial subscribers list of three hundred, and were the largest single plate books completed in America during the nineteenth century. 

John Bachman

The work was produced in collaboration with John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and long time friend of Audubon, who was a recognised authority on American mammalia, (sadly, history has not remembered the full importance of Bachman’s contribution to the study of his country’s natural history). 

Common Wild Cat

Initially, Bachman was somewhat reluctant to become involved in the venture, but he was won over when Audubon assured him that the work would not be rushed and would receive the full care and attention that the subject justified. Bachman also insisted that the Audubon’s bear the cost of producing the Quadrupeds, but also that they receive the full profits, not least because his daughters, Maria and Eliza, were married to Audubon’s sons, John Waterhouse and Victor, and he hoped to provide some financial stability for them. 

Grizzly Bears

Disaster, no stranger to the Audubons, struck twice in rapid succession; on September 15th 1840, Mrs John Audubon died at her old home in Charleston, aged only twenty-three years, from tuberculosis. On May 25th 1841, her sister Eliza, wife of Victor, died from the same disease; she was twenty-two. 

Common Buffalo or Bison

The Audubons and the Bachmans took refuge in the work, a distraction from the grief. The Audubons also worked on a octavo edition of the Birds, of seven-volumes, combining reduced sized copies of the originals, incorporating the text from the Ornithological Biographies. The initial subscription of three hundred copies was quickly filled, a second three hundred also sold out, and by early 1841, the list stood at 1,475 copies. 


Like the Birds, the Quadrupeds was issued in instalments, thirty numbers of five plates each, at $10 per number, with the costs underwritten by the profits from the octavo Birds. In 1843, the fifty-eight-year-old Audubon undertook an eight months’ trip up the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, collecting specimens for the project, but the hardships he encountered severely damaged his health, and this was to be his last expedition. 


In October, he returned home to Minnie’s Land and, in collaboration with his sons, he began work on the first volume of the Quadrupeds. Bachman, in the relative isolation of Charleston, South Carolina, had no ready access to large libraries and needed Audubon to send him copied texts from the required books, with notice of which animals were next on his list, together with specimens from which he could make the necessary measurements and descriptions. 

Black Wolf

In the end, driven to distraction by the lack of information, Bachman issued an ultimatum – send the necessary books and specimens or he would be unable to provide the text to accompany the illustrations. He complained about the amount of time that he had to dedicate to the writing, no doubt unaware of the workload that John James Audubon considered to be the norm. It worried him that his name was on the title page and the words he had promised to supply would be inadequate. The Audubons responded by sending Bachman whatever it was he needed, and the work continued. 

Gray Fox

By 1846, Audubon’s eyesight began to fail and work on the illustrations for the Quadrupeds passed almost entirely to his sons. It must be said that, in spite of John Waterhouse Audubon’s skills, his works do not have that je ne sais quoi that characterises the elder Audubon’s paintings (compare his Grey Fox, for example, to John W’s Moose). 


Although he never went blind, as some biographers have written, his faltering sight left Audubon heartbroken, but the real decline came with his mental health, as his sanity began to depart. Surrounded by family, friends and loyal retainers, he died at Minnie’s Land on January 27th 1851, “… as gently as a child composing himself for his beautiful sleep.” 

Victor Audubon

Victor and John continued the work on the Quadrupeds, under the supervision of Bachman, and in March 1852, the third and final volume was finished. Work immediately began on a smaller folio edition, which appeared in 1854, using the same techniques that had been employed on the folio Birds

John Waterhouse Audubon

Although inferior in scope and realisation to the Birds, the Quadrupeds is still a truly remarkable achievement and deserves to be far better known to the general public, not least for the eminently readable text by Bachman.

John James Audubon

Tomorrow  - Audubon’s legacy.

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