The bird man of Liverpool

A century and a half after his death, James Audubon, the greatest of all bird painters, is to be given a permanent home in his adopted British city. Ian Herbert celebrates a landmark for wildlife art
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Liverpool has exploited every cultural asset it can lay its hands on in pursuit of a brighter post-industrial image during the past 10 years. So the vivid colours and the memorable vitality of the flamingoes, ducks and parakeets which have been quietly gathering dust in its central library remain one of the city's great curiosities.

They are the work of John James Audubon, America's greatest wildlife artist, whose intricate links to the city have been all but overlooked while LIverpool busily paraded the Rembrandts, Hockneys and even Paul McCartneys of the Walker Art Gallery - the so-called "National Gallery of the North" - and the more contemporary offerings of the Tate's northern outpost.

But yesterday Audubon's moment finally arrived. To the delight of his followers throughout the world, it was announced that the world's first permanent gallery to the Haitian-born artist is to be located in Liverpool - the city which gave Audubon his big commercial break and which possesses one of only 119 complete sets of the artist's Birds of America - the giant book that contains 435 vast, hand-coloured engravings which he took 11 painstaking years to complete.

The Audubon Room will be introduced to coincide with Liverpool's elevation to European Capital of Culture, in 2008, the very idea and timing put forward by The Independent eight months ago when it urged Liverpool to deliver up from storage its precious copy of Birds, which was purchased in 1861 to mark the opening of the William Brown Library and Museum.

The move also follows lobbying behind the scenes from the environment minister Eliot Morley, a Liverpudlian, bird-watcher and Audubon enthusiast, who has written to each of Liverpool's Labour MPs to seek help in his mission.

Though it falls well short of the aspiration of a gallery in which every Audubon print can be viewed, the room will place each of the four volumes of Birds on permanent display for the first time, alongside other works from the city's large collection of ornithological illustrations.

The creation of the room follows a recent announcement by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that £31.5m is to be made available for the 150-year-old library's refurbishment - the biggest government-backed library development in the UK. It will mean that one of Liverpool's most enduring - and little known - stories may finally be appreciated.

The city's huge part in his life seemed improbable when the artist was born Jean Jacques Audubon, the son of a half-French, half-American frontier artist in 1785, to his father's chambermaid who died within six months. He was taken to France and raised there during the Revolution years by his father's wife, who introduced him to painting and natural history while his father, the captain of a French cargo vessel, was trading rum, sugar, and slaves on his rounds from France to various Caribbean and US ports.

In 1803, aged 18, he was sent back across the Atlantic, possibly to avoid call-up to Napoleon's army, and settled at Mill Grove, a rural farm on the Schuylkill River in eastern Pennsylvania where he became John James. He was known an exceptional marksman, fencer, dancer, musician, horseman, and charmer of women who chanced his arm - and failed - at most commercial enterprises, from farming and general stores. But he found his life's love in the wildlife around him and on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers which he sailed. "It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me," he wrote later. "Its fine woodlands, its extensive acres, its fields crowned with evergreen offered many subjects to my pencil."

Stories of how Audubon tried to capture his subjects are legion. He tried - and failed - to draw freshly shot birds suspended with pieces of string to create the impression of life. Then he began to skewer the birds with sharp, pliable wires, fastening the ends to a board in the background, and twisting and bending them until he produced dynamic poses. He painted all his birds life-size, and manipulating the forms enabled him to fit them onto his drawing paper. On the board he plotted a grid to help him accurately fix the perspective and proportions he wanted for his compositions.

Then he conceived the idea of producing, as engravings, each of the birds of America. Eventually, he had to come to Britain, with his paintings, to find a printer capable of undertaking the task. He found one, William Lizas of Edinburgh, and then in July 1826, he arrived in Liverpool in search of a patron and struck gold.

Audubon possessed a letter of introduction to the Liverpool investment firm Rathbones, which took him in and offered financial assistance. He spent years in England, supervising the publication of about 200 sets of the Birds for which subscribers paid roughly $1,000 a set. He was to become a celebrity in Paris, too, but always returned to Liverpool, where the Rathbones had their family home, Greenbank, in the south of the city.

Without Liverpool and the Rathbones, Audubon might well have given up and gone home, according to Duff Hart-Davis, whose book on the artist, Audubon's Elephant, was published last year. "He was not confident about how to behave in polite society because he had come out of the woods," Hart-Davis says. "He got very disheartened at first. It was the kindness of the people in Liverpool, who took him in and took him to all the social functions, which gave him the confidence in his own intellect and ability, the confidence to go out and make the connections he needed."

Appropriately, Liverpool subsequently purchased its own copy of Birds in 1860 for £165, when a local merchant bequeathed £1,000 for books and materials. It was nearly lost during wartime bombing in 1941 when the library's storage rooms took a direct hit and the Brown library was reduced to a burnt-out shell. But the chief librarian, J F Smith, removed the four great volumes of Birds of America to safety himself. Measuring up to 100cm by 75cm in size (double elephant print) they have remained in the Central Library ever since.

A complete set now makes up the world's most valuable printed book: the last one on the market sold to an anonymous private collector at Christie's, New York, in March 2000 for $8.8m (£4.8m), more than double its estimate.

Of the 200 or so full sets of Birds - the exact figure is unknown - that were issued to subscribers, for the then-enormous price of $1,000, it is thought that 119 remain complete. The rest have been broken up over the years and sold off as individual prints. But of the 119 sets - 108 in learned institutions from New York to St Petersburg and 11 in private hands - none is on full display. The number of people in Britain who have looked on a complete set of genuine Audubon prints is probably in the low hundreds, if that; elsewhere, outside the USA, it is probably even fewer.

In Liverpool, the gallery to the city's re-discovered son will be located in the Grecian-style Picton library, part of the labyrinthine central library which is to be modernised and made more navigable for 2008 by the redevelopment project and where - well ahead of its creation - a four-month exhibition of Birds opened yesterday.

Though Audubon enthusiasts long for a fully fledged gallery hung with works from Birds, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (published during the 1840s) and The Ornithological Biography (produced in collaborated with artist and naturalist, William McGillivray), the initial establishment of something more modest was inevitable. The central library has campaigned to hold on to its Audubon treasure and the major government grant, awarded under a private finance initiative, helped its cause.

Audubon is also undergoing something of a renaissance in Glasgow this year, where the Mitchell Library was gifted its own copy of Birds 102 years ago. The labyrinthine library, the largest public reference library in Europe, is to start exhibiting Birds as part of its own £3.5m redevelopment. Glasgow's copy came with the library collection amassed by the Victorian cotton magnate Robert Jeffrey.

The head of Liverpool's libraries, Joyce Little, said yesterday that the new room will give "a new prominence" to the city's hidden gem. "We have a fine reputation for our ornithological collection and natural history collection. Our Gould's Book of Birds is also very precious. This means we can bring it all together in one place."

Liverpool city council indicated that it had taken little to persuade people that Audubon demanded a permanent exhibition space. "This exhibition is truly stunning and shows the extent of the priceless exhibits the library has in its collection," said Councillor Warren Bradley, the council's executive member for culture and leisure.

Mr Morley indicated that he still wanted to see something more ambitious for Audubon, in the fullness of time. "This is marvellous news but I still think ... that there should be a full gallery specially dedicated to showing all the prints permanently," he said. "There is no doubt that there would be such international interest in this that there would be many willing funders, from home and abroad. Liverpool can do it if it wants. It just requires political leadership."

Liverpool certainly aspires to do more to represent its formidable history of great people, with plans for a new £65m Museum of Liverpool (potentially the biggest about any single city in the world) for the Mersey riverfront which is dependent on cash from the North West regional development agency and regeneration pots.

"There is currently not enough room for all the stories of people like Audubon - and the many other famous people with Liverpool associations," said David Fleming, director of Liverpool Museums. "Stories about cities and their citizens have only been popular with museums for the past 20 years or so. We are delighted by what the library is doing - and we need a bigger museum. There is a great thirst for this kind of stuff."