After John James  Audubon (1785-1851); Great Blue Heron (Pl. CCXI);

Top flight

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 20

After John James  Audubon (1785-1851); Louisiana Heron (Pl. CCXVII);

Top flight

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 20

After John James  Audubon (1785-1851); Snowy Owl (Pl. CXXI);

Top flight

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 20

Top flight

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 20

Audubon did not just depict the natural world – he enhanced it. That is why his bird paintings are second to none, says Bill Oddie

John James Audubon was more than an artist. He was a phenomenon. Over a period of 20 or so years, in the first half of the 19th century, he traversed the United States, determined to see, study and illustrate every known species of American bird. Along the way he discovered some that were hitherto unknown. To achieve this, he needed
to be not only a field-artist and a painter, but also a naturalist, scientist, pioneer, explorer and adventurer.

Fitness and fearlessness were certainly required. He endured harsh conditions from Labrador to Florida and also often had to defend himself against gunslingers and hostile Native Americans, many of whom were less than friendly to the white men invading their homeland. It says much for Audubon's humanity that all references to "Indians" in his journals are sympathetic. (His North American adventures are recorded in his journals – he was a pretty good writer too.)

It required extraordinary determination and courage, nevertheless, to wander in the wild armed only with a notepad, paintbrush, small spyglass and a shotgun. The gun was a deterrent rarely used in anger, but it allowed him to shoot animals for food. He also shot birds, sometimes also for food, but mainly as specimens. Victorian naturalists called themselves "collectors", which was something of a euphemism for killing almost everything that flew, hopped or swam. Unfortunately, 'collecting' became increasingly rife to fuel the demands of taxidermists, or to satisfy competitive instincts.

Audubon's motives were more noble. He intended to paint his subjects in great detail and with total accuracy. He had neither camera, nor high-powered optical equipment. These days his spyglass would be considered a toy. Field sketches may have conveyed an impression, but they could not convey every little detail and nuance of feather patterns and colors.

Ironically, the only way Audubon could get close enough to the birds he loved was to shoot them out of the sky. If the species was unfamiliar, it was the only way to identify it, and handing over the dead bird was the only way that it would be accepted by the scientific hierarchy. The collector's motto was "What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery."

Most Victorian naturalists drew or painted whatever they collected. There are many tomes full of illustrations, not just of birds, but of butterflies, moths, flowers and so on, usually spread across the pages in regimental ranks. They are meticulously accurate, but they look dead. Because they were. Audubon's birds were also dead, but he brought them back to life. In doing so, he gave them a shape and a form beyond the strictly natural.

Audubon relished two aspects of working from corpses. He could examine every single feather close up. And he could rearrange the 'specimen' in whatever posture he wished. To allow himself total control, he threaded wire through the bird to allow maximum pliability. Sometimes the pose would be exactly typical of the species in the wild, but at other times he contorts his subject into elegant, weird or unnatural shapes.

On some occasions, he concocts a scenario from his imagination rather than observation. Did he really see a snake coiled round a tree trunk under a nest full of mockingbirds? Real or imaginary, this image is a masterpiece. The same artistic license applies to some of his backgrounds, which can be incongruous, sometimes verging on the surreal.

What is so impressive, ingenious, appealing and indeed entertaining is that, although Audubon was a meticulous natural scientist, he was not in the least pedantic. If he wanted to depict a scene that would probably never happen in the wild, he would. If some of his life-sized water birds wouldn't quite fit in the designated page size, he would twist their necks or contort their legs until they did. It doesn't look 'wrong', it looks like a beautiful design.

I have had the pleasure – nay, thrill – of seeing two or three editions of Audubon's The Birds of America, prints from which are for sale at Bonhams in Los Angeles in April. The illustrations are simply breathtaking. I am a huge fan of 'finding the art in nature', and by that I mean what nature itself creates – dew droplets on cobwebs, the elegant shapes of displaying seabirds, downland flowers festooned with butterflies. But Audubon doesn't simply record nature, he enhances it, manipulates it, plays with it. It is a wonderful paradox that, considering Audubon's birds were dead, the quality they exude is life.

Bill Oddie is an ornithologist, author and broadcaster.

Contacts

Related auctions