Duff Hart-Davis: How Britain discovered the joys of the birds of America

From a talk given by the author of 'Audubon's Elephant' at the Edinburgh Book Festival
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The Independent Online

The French-American John James Audubon is the most celebrated of all bird artists. His magnum opus, the four-volume Birds of America, is now so rare and sought-after that the last copy to come up for sale - at Sotheby's, New York, in 2000 - fetched an astonishing $8.8m - and it was here, in Edinburgh, that his great work first took wing.

Audubon was born in the West Indies in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French plantation owner and a French chambermaid. He was brought up in France, and sent to America when he was 18. From his earliest youth he was fascinated by birds, and all he wanted to do was to shoot one specimen after another so that he could draw and paint it.

Over the years he built up a portfolio of 250 brilliantly-coloured illustrations. Yet he could find no one in America to publish reproductions of his pictures. Spurned by the intellectuals of Philadelphia, as a final throw he took ship for England, landing at Liverpool in the summer of 1826.

On Merseyside he was taken up by the Rathbones, a well-to-do merchant family, and made an immediate social hit, playing the role of the woodsman, with his shoulder-length chestnut hair, his baggy pantaloons and his wolfskin coat, and startling the fashionable women he met at dinner parties by giving his Red Indian war cry. But still he could not find a publisher - partly because he insisted that engravings of his pictures must appear on double-elephant folio - enormous sheets of paper almost 40 inches by 30 - so that even the largest birds such as the wild turkey could be represented life-size.

Then, in Edinburgh, his paintings caused a sensation when they were exhibited at the newly-built Royal Institution. People were startled by their life and violence - hawks rippping up their bloody prey. He was introduced to the city's leading engraver, William Home Lizars, who took one look and cried out, "'My God! I never saw anything like this before!" Lizars at once began to engrave the first copper plates from which prints were made - and so the mighty enterprise got under way.

It took Audubon 12 years to complete The Birds of America, searching for subscribers in England and America, and hunting down further species, until he had 435. I believe the effort shortened his life. But he loved Edinburgh, and returned here repeatedly, revelling in the classical architecture of the New Town, with its clean grey granite buildings, and the mountains round about.