JJ Audubon – The Birds of America

Liverpool Central Library until 31st March 2005
After leaving the Walker on Sunday I called into the Central Libraries next door. Isn’t it great that Liverpool libraries are open on Sundays, I can’t quite get used to the idea. If you haven’t been here before its well worth a visit just to see some of the rooms. This exhibition is in the Picton room on the 2nd floor, this is a large round room with a huge domed ceiling, the slightest noise echoes all round the room.

The main item is, of course, the huge volume ‘The Birds of America’. It is printed on very large paper known as double elephant folio. Audubon insisted that all the birds should be illustrated in actual life size, even so some are shown in distorted poses to fit within the frame. Unfortunately you can only see the two pages at which the book is open, its in a closed display case. The pages are turned every Tuesday and Thursday. There are several prints on display around the room and there are smaller books by Audubon and his contemporaries, not just of birds but other natural history too.

The slideshow is interesting partly because of his connections with Liverpool. He was lucky when he arrived from America in 1826 to fall in with the wealthy Rathbone family who invited him to stay at their home in Greenbank. He obtained letters of introduction to many local dignitaries such as William Roscoe and Lord Stanley.

His illustrations weren’t always anatomically perfect and he had an annoying habit of announcing he’d (incorrectly) discovered new species and naming them after his friends (e.g his Stanley Hawk was already known as Cooper’s Hawk). But he was the first to depict birds in their natural environment in realistic poses rather than the stuffed, static profiles people were used to and the paintings are big, brightly coloured and full of energy.