Audubon and the Birds of America
The Birds of America is considered to be one of the best natural history books ever to be published. With hundreds of plates of birds painted with incredible detail, Birds of America has been one of the most valuable books in the world for many years.
The book is a fine example of the work, passion, and dedication of its author, John James Audubon, an American ornithologist and painter during the 18th and 19th centuries. Audubon devoted his entire career to documenting and illustrating the different species of birds native to North America, spending much of his time in the wild observing their behaviours. He would hunt the birds and, instead of stuffing them, would pose them with wires for his paintings, which enabled him to create the impression that the birds were still alive, about to fly off the page. This was a different technique than what was used by his predecessors, who rarely went into the wild to paint birds, but instead painted specimens kept in museums.
A full set of Birds of America contains four volumes with 435 hand-painted engravings. This book was published over an eleven year period, 1827-1838- fewer than 200 sets of the four volumes were printed. The first 10 plates were engraved by Edinburgh engraver, William H. Lizars, who could not engrave the full set as his staff went on strike. The remaining plates were engraved by Robert Havell Jr of London. Each bird featured in the book is painted to a life-size scale, making the book “double-elephant” folio- a book about the size of your average coffee table that definitely can’t fit on a coffee table!
The College has a half-set of Birds of America, with one volume being on permanent display in the Library Reading Room. The half-set was bought for £48 in 1838, probably purchased second-hand after the original subscriber defaulted. Every few months the volumes are carefully swapped in the case to ensure that each book gets a rest, however it requires a few people to carry this out because the books are so heavy! The displayed page is also changed, with some favourites being shown throughout the year- we like to get the turkey out for Christmas!
Although a peculiar item of the College’s heritage collection, Birds of America is truly a piece of art and continues to be a visitor-favourite.
Listen in to episode 4 of Body of Work Bites here: https://heritage.rcpsg.ac.uk/learn