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Digital Gallery: Victoria Gallery & Museum: Audubon Gallery

Victoria Gallery & Museum: Audubon Gallery
Permanent Display
Location: Gallery 8, first floor

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a nineteenth-century wildlife artist and naturalist. He travelled the American wilderness identifying, studying and drawing hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

We are the only gallery in Britain where you can see original work by Audubon. Birds of America is a book of prints of his hand-painted pictures of birds, whereas the our collection consists of original paintings, drawings and watercolours. Most of the collection came from the Rathbone family with whom Audubon stayed with.

You can also see the Birds of America book in Liverpool Central Library.

Exhibition Details & Works:

This exhibition is available to view in 360 on YouTube, click below:

John James Audubon (1785-1851)

How did an illegitimate~ bankrupt~ self-taught artist publish one of the most valuable books in the world?

Audubon was born on April 26th 1785 to a sea captain and a maid in Santo Domingo, today’s Haiti. He grew up in France with his father’s wife and at 18, his father sent him to his farm near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, USA. There he met and married his wife Lucy, and had two children.

Taking frequent trips into the American wilderness, he would spend months hunting, fishing and drawing; maintaining his childhood passion for nature, especially birds.

While other artists were publishing drawings of birds, that looked stiff and unrealistic, Audubon realised his pictures were more natural and decided he wanted to publish his artwork in a book chronicling every species in America.

After being denied funding and the chance to publish in America, in 1826, Audubon sailed to Liverpool on the cotton hauling ship Delos to seek funding and patronage on the shores of Britain.

He carried with him letters of introduction, including one to Liverpool merchant Richard Rathbone. The Rathbones accommodated Audubon, introduced him to important people, and hosted a promotional exhibition at the Liverpool Royal Institution. Their support greatly promoted Audubon’s international reputation.

And then …

After Audubon’s stay in Liverpool he moved on to spend time in Manchester, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, York, Shrewsbury, and London; finding sponsors and raising money to fund his book.

He held exhibitions of his work in big city galleries to gain interest and sell his paintings. He produced oil painting commissions and got fans of his art to pay for an advance subscription to the book. He also sold bird and animal skins, which he hunted whilst travelling through Britain. Even King George IV was an avid fan of his work and actually became a subscriber to the book.

The completed Birds of America consists of 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints, made on engraved copper plates that were translated from Audubon’s artwork into engravings by Robert Havell. At one point about fifty colourists were working on the application of the colours to the prints to get them all out to subscribers in time. It took until 1838 to complete the printing process.

Within the pages are images of just over 700 North American bird species including six now extinct birds: Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Esquimaux Curlew, and Pinnated Grouse.

After the publication of Birds of America, Audubon began a new collection from 1845 to 1848 called Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

Liverpool Central Library, has a copy of Birds of America on display- it is now considered one of the most valuable books in the world.

The Exhibition:

A Robin
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

This work is inscribed with a poem to Hannah Rathbone, sister of Richard and William Rathbone.

In the poem Audubon describes how he enjoyed spending time in the wild, living with nature:

‘There is a joy, that oft my heart has known,
The secret haunts of nature to explore,
To hold communion with myself alone,
In wilds, which man has never trod before,
And well I love, at solitary night,
To hear the wailing Heron’s plaintive cry,
My only lamp, the fireflys’ glowing light;
My only canopy the fretted sky.’

Watercolour on paper
Lent by Mr R S Rathbone FA 2195

A Robin Perched on a Mossy Stone
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Like the Self Portrait also on display in this gallery Audubon made this work for Hannah Rathbone during his stay at Greenbank House.

Audubon recorded in his journal that:
‘ … after breakfast Miss Hannah opened the window and her favourite robin hopped about the carpet, quite at home’.

He attached a letter to the reverse, part of which reads:
‘It was my greatest wish to have affixed on the face of this drawing my real thoughts of the amiable Lady for whom I made it in Poetry Divine!- but an injunction from Hannah Rathbone against that wish of my Heart has put an end to it- and now I am forced to think only of her benevolence!’

Watercolour on paper
Presented by the Rathbone family, 1971. FA 609

Hawk Pouncing on Partridges
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

This is one of seven pictures that Audubon exhibited at the Royal Institution Liverpool in 1827.
In his diary he detailed:

‘The different attitudes exhibited by the [partridges] cannot fail to give you a lively idea of the terror and confusion which prevail on such occasions.’

Audubon nurtured a lifelong passion for birds and wildlife, recording this in his bold and energetic paintings. He spent time observing them in the wild and often brought specimens home to dissect so as to understand their eating habits. He would also mount specimens on wires for study from all angles, resulting in the lively contorted poses seen here.

Oil on canvas
Presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution by the family of
Richard Rathbone, 1840. FA 463

An Otter Caught in a Trap
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Audubon painted this picture as a leaving gift for Mrs. Rathbone, the wife of his patron Richard Rathbone, in 1826.

Audubon said that, beyond his fascination with birds, the Canada otter was his next favourite subject. He first painted it as early as 1812 as a watercolour study.

Audubon spent many years observing, hunting and shooting animals and recording his findings. He drew every aspect of their lives including death. For him this would have been a natural and acceptable subject. Violence in nature was, to Audubon, beyond the judgement of mankind.

Oil on canvas
Presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution by the family of
Richard Rathbone, 1840. FA 461

Self Portrait
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Whilst staying in Liverpool, Audubon took up residence in the Rathbones’ family home:
Greenbank House in Mossley Hill.

This drawing is inscribed, ‘Audubon at Greenbank, Almost Happy!!- Sept. 1826’.

He presented it to Hannah, Richard’s sister, as a token of affection.

This is the only self-portrait that Audubon ever produced and the rosewood frame is a handmade original made by Hannah Rathbone.

Pencil on paper
Bequest of Dr. B.L. Rathbone, 2006 FA 3334

Audubon and Taxidermy

Audubon’s true passion in life was his study of birds, and he was reliant on specimens that he killed and prepared himself so that he could capture all their intricacies in his paintings.

He started preserving birds out of necessity and without guidance but, on a return trip to France, under the tutoring of Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, he became quite well trained in the art. Later in his life, while in Cincinnati, he even worked as a taxidermist at a museum.

After sketching the natural shapes of birds in the field, Audubon would use wires and a gridded board to re-pose the birds and draw them exactly to scale; sometimes even hanging birds upside down so that the wings opened to create the illusion of flight.

He liked to paint birds as soon after death as possible as he felt the feathers lost colour soon after death.

Bird skinning was another technique well-known to naturalists in Audubon’s time and one still used by ornithologists today. He used skins to correct proofs of his drawings and also in some cases, to depict birds he had never seen in the wild.

Later in his career, when he moved to New York especially, Audubon relied on skins preserved by others and had them sent to him from all over America.

Animation by Sculpting With Light

American Wild Turkey Cock
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

This composition also appears as a plate in Audubon’s book, the Birds of America.

He painted one copy as a gift for the Rathbone family and another for an exhibition at the Liverpool Royal Institution. He made the Royal Institution picture in just 23 hours in a frenzy of artistic output with his ‘hair all flowing and the colours also’.

Audubon was rigorous in his depiction of birds at the size they appeared in life. In his book, Audubon was constrained by the page size (even with double elephant sized paper) and concentrated on just the images of the birds. However, in this painting he has placed the turkey in its natural habitat, the falls of Ohio, creating a landscape painting.

Oil on canvas
Probably presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution and
transferred, 1892. FA 465