Friday, 10 May 2013

The Rewarding Reception of the Ornithographical Oeuvre


              Hardly had the Havells begun work on Audubon’s Birds of America, than it dawned on the author that, of course, the Havells would need to be paid. Audubon fell back on what he always did in such circumstances – he improvised. 

J J Audubon - The Entrapped Otter

The plan was to paint copies of his popular picture, The Entrapped Otter, and hawk them around the various galleries and shops of London’s East End, and he sold seven copies of the subject, together with copies of other works. Then, Dame Fortune smiled upon him, when Sir Thomas Lawrence, the renowned and celebrated society portraitist, called on him at his studio and inquired about the price of the works he saw there. 

J J Audubon - English Pheasants Surprised by a Spanish Dog

He departed and returned later with two friends, who both bought paintings for twenty and fifteen pounds respectively. Lawrence was back later with more friends, and more paintings were bought for seven, ten and thirty-five pounds, leaving Audubon with more than enough to cover the five pounds he had borrowed for painting materials and to pay the Havells the sixty pounds they billed Audubon two days later. It was a close escape, but the great work continued. 

Advertisement for Havell and Son

He was not out of the woods however. Subscribers cancelled their subscriptions, others complained that all the birds looked alike and that the work was an out and out swindle, agents appointed to collect the subscription money forgot to do so, other forgot to deliver the prints, some of the prints from Lizars brought complaints of poor quality and had to be replaced. Audubon took one of Havell’s colourists to task about the quality of his work and told him to improve or face dismissal, whereupon the rest of the colourists went out on strike in support of their colleague, and it was several days before they could be enticed back to work. 

J J Audubon - Golden Eagle

In spite of all this, Audubon entered 1828 with his finances in the black, confidence in his heart and hopes for the future in his breast. He was still travelling incessantly, selling subscriptions and paintings en route, and crossed the Channel, raising more subscriptions and meeting the foremost French scientists and naturalists; the great Baron Cuvier declared the work to be the  
“…most magnificent monument which has yet been erected to ornithology.” 

Baron Cuvier

Audubon secured subscriptions from King Charles X, the Duke of Orleans, and swelled with pride when François Gerard, the famous portraitist, seized his hand and cried, 
Mr. Audubon, you are the king of ornithological painters. We are all children in France and Europe. Who would have expected such things from the woods of America?” 
The trip to France cost him forty pounds and only raised thirteen subscriptions, but the increase in prestige and reputation he felt had been well worth the investment. He returned to London and left the publication to the Havells, in whom he had now confidence, with Children as his English representative, and decided to return to America. 

W H Holmes - Portrait of James Audubon

On April 1st 1829, he boarded the packet-ship Columbia, out of Portsmouth for New York, paying thirty pounds for his passage. On arrival back in America, he paused to exhibit his paintings at the Lyceum of Natural History, and settled for three weeks at Camden, New Jersey, where he made some new paintings, before heading for Great Egg Harbour, and then to Mauch Chunk, where he concentrated on smaller woodland warblers, finches and flycatchers. 

J J Audubon - Common Buzzard

In October, he turned south, pausing in Louisville to visit his two sons before hastening to Louisiana, where he was reunited with Lucy. Before long, he was on the road again, this time with his wife by his side, and in April 1830 they boarded the Pacific in New York and embarked for London. After a short stay, the pair left for Edinburgh, where Audubon began work on the text for Birds of America, in what eventually became known as Ornithological Biography (also called the Biography of Birds), a massive five-volume effort amounting to over three thousand pages. 

J J Audubon - Ornithological Biography - 1831

In a brilliant piece of recruitment, Audubon collaborated with a young Scots naturalist, James MacGillivray, who was employed to revise and correct his text, at two guineas per sixteen sheets. The two rose before dawn and worked late into the night, writing the first volume in a mere three months, with Mrs Audubon copying the text ready to be shipped to America, thereby securing the copyright. Unable to find a publisher, Audubon paid for the publication out of his own pocket, the first volume printed under the imprint of Adam Black, the subsequent four by Adam and Charles Black. 

Page from Audubon's Journal

When the work was completed, the Audubons travelled south, through Newcastle, York, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, and then to London; Audubon relates in his Journal that they,   
“… travelled on that extraordinary road, called the railway, at the rate of 24 miles an hour.” 
After a brief visit to Paris, they boarded a ship back to New York, and Mrs Audubon went on to Louisville, to visit her sons, whist John began plans to go to Florida, to paint the birds there. 

J J Audubon - The Birds of America -Vol 1

On the same day they arrived in New York, the London Literary Gazette published a notice of the death of the famous ornithologist, Alexander Wilson. Immediately, letters were sent to the editor, pointing out that Wilson the ornithologist had, in fact, been dead for eighteen years. A red-faced editor printed an apology, of course he had not meant Wilson, he had intended to write Audubon. More letters to the editor. What sort of a newspaperman was he, to resurrect a man that had been dead for eighteen years, only to kill him, and then kill another man who was, as all that knew him, hale, hearty and just arrived back in America from England?

Tomorrow – Audubon alive after all.


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