Audubon's Elephant, by Duff Hart-Davis

Birds of a frontier paradise
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

He must be the hardest of all famous artists to see in the original: what European gallery has John James Audubon upon its walls? His great work, The Birds of America, was a book of 435 giant prints, hand-coloured engravings more than three feet long, which took 11 years to produce from 1827 to 1838. The 119 copies known to be still complete are mainly kept locked away in libraries, museums and the private houses of very rich men in the US and Britain.

They are worth a king's ransom - the last one on the market sold for nearly $9m. - and they are very difficult to display. So for almost all of us, looking at Audubon means looking at reproductions. The total number of people in Britain who have gazed on the full set of original prints by the half-French, half-American frontiersman bird artist is probably in the low hundreds.

Even the reproductions, even when the size of a small paperback, are often unforgettable pictures: the greater flamingo, impossibly scarlet and doubled up (though quite true to life), the peregrine falcons savagely ripping a pair of ducks to pieces, the (now extinct) Carolina parakeets clustered squabbling in a tree like green, crimson and gold jewels in a brooch. Yet no matter how familiar with them you may grow, nothing prepares you for the electric shock of the real thing.

When the great double-elephant folio is opened - that's the print size, 391/2 by 291/2 inches, the largest book format attempted up to that time - the power, the movement and the sheer lustrous brilliance of the images leave you stunned. The shock passes to wonderment, and then to intense delight, and then (in the case of the present writer) to a covetousness so violent it turned into laughter.

Suddenly you understand it all, the fuss that was made immediately when people saw these amazing prints 170 years ago in Britain, France and America. There has been nothing like Audubon and his double elephant folio, before or since.

He was the illegitimate son of a French naval officer and went to America to escape conscription into Napoleon's armies. After marrying an English-woman, Lucy Bakewell, he drifted through a succession of fail- ed business ventures (stores, sawmills) on the expanding frontier of Kentucky and Louisiana before recognising that his hobby, tramping through the virgin forest and painting its birds, was his true vocation.

But to realise his grand ambition - to publish, as engravings, his paintings of all the birds of America then known - he had to come back across the Atlantic to Britain. He stayed from 1826 to 1829, and returned for six shorter subsequent visits.

Duff Hart-Davis recounts with verve and much fascinating long-lost detail the hugely enter- taining story of how the handsome, warm, long-haired frontiersman charmed his way into late-Georgian society first in Liverpool, then in Edinburgh and finally in London. Eventually Audubon had an engraver (Robert Havell) skilled enough to do justice to his paintings, and enough wealthy subscribers to buy the prints, over the decade and more it took to produce them. Audubon's Elephant is beautifully illustrated and will foster renewed interest in Audubon, not only for his art, but also for the man, optimistic, enthusiastic, irrepressible: all qualities needed to see through to the finish his exquisite but truly elephantine labour.

While owning an original copy of The Birds of America is beyond the reach of all but the most plutocratic, the next best thing has just become available. The Baby Elephant Folio, The National Audubon Society's full set of reproductions of the prints, between one third and half size and first published in 1984, has been reprinted by Abbeville Press of New York. It is the size and weight of a decent slab of concrete and is priced in the UK at £125, but the full panoply of Audubon's wondrous image-making is all there before you. Be warned: you will need a taxi to get it home.

Michael McCarthy is environment editor of 'The Independent'