This exhibit at Indiana University, Bloomington features 50 of the most representative plates from John James Audubon’s magnificent work, The Birds of America at the Lilly Library, a collection of 435 hand-colored aquatint engravings featuring life-sized portraits of North American bird species. The plates were made after Audubon’s original watercolors by the English firm of Robert Havell Jr., from 1827 to 1828. Havell used double–elephant folio sized paper (39 ½ x 26 ½), bearing the watermark of “J. Whatman.” The reproductions were made from Lilly Library’s own set, directly acquired from Audubon by Robert Ray of New York and purchased by J.K. Lilly, Jr. in the 1940s.
Along with reproductions of the plates, our exhibit features excerpts from Audubon’s prose descriptions of these birds. Ornithological Biography (1831-39) is Audubon’s single greatest literary achievement—3000 pages of text, chock–full with observations, opinions, stories, and poetry. The young Spencer Fullerton Baird, future Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Philadelphia, found his bird description as exciting as a “favorite novel.” Over the years, Audubon developed a distinctive, complex voice as a writer––that of a field naturalist who has personally seen all that he writes about but also understands the viewpoint of a reader who hasn’t been where he was and must therefore, by means of vivid language and sometimes exaggerated imagery, be brought closer to the scenes of American nature which will, Audubon suggests, soon vanish.
Audubon’s oversized personality and work have left indelible traces in art, science, and literature, in the United States and beyond. His vivid insights, in his drawings and essays, into the behavior of birds made him one of the most frequently cited sources in Charles Darwin’s books and prepared the way for Peterson’s popular field guides. Writers from Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) and Eudora Welty (“A Still Moment”) to Maureen Howard (Big as Life, 2001) have responded to the challenge of his often outrageous persona. In 2002, the Canadian novelist Katherine Govier devoted a novel, Creation (2002), to the collecting trip to Labrador Audubon undertook in 1833, where he grew disenchanted with the killing of birds in which he knew he was complicit, too. “Nature herself seems perishing,” he wrote after watching fishermen kill over four hundred gannets in an hour.
The arrangement of plates in Audubon’s Double Elephant Folios was not taxonomic but dictated by Havell’s and his own work schedule and by the desire to offer at least one spectacular image in each set of five plates. The arrangement in our exhibit follows the classifications of plates in the so–called “Baby Elephant Folio,” edited by Rogert Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson and first published in 1981. The Petersons correct Audubon’s identification errors and reorganized the plates to conform, approximately, with the American Ornithological Union Checklist of North American Birds. Notes supplied at the beginning of the textual commentary reconstruct when Audubon first painted the birds reproduced in each plate.