Home Arts Seminal meter-high engravings of American birds soar to Compton Verney, but what about their controversial author?

Seminal meter-high engravings of American birds soar to Compton Verney, but what about their controversial author?

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Compton Verney is hosting a John James Audubon exhibition this summer birds of america (1827-38), on tour since National Museums of Scotland. Nearly 12 years in the making, the book’s 435 hand-colored prints offer a comprehensive index of American ornithology, reflecting Audubon’s ambitious plan to document each of the country’s bird species. With its epic and national reach, birds of america anticipates the democratic catalogs of Walt Whitman Blades of grass, published in 1855. “Here is not merely a nation, but a nation teeming with nations”, writes Whitman in his preface; one wonders if he had America’s diverse bird nation in mind.

The exhibition draws on the collection of the Library of the National Museums of Scotland, which has one of only 120 complete extant copies of the series. Almost never exhibited, the prints have undergone extensive conservation treatment, offering visitors a fleeting opportunity to view them in their massive, multicolored glory. Displayed alongside letters, photographs and manuscripts telling the story of the artworks and the controversial man behind them, birds of america raises valuable questions about the role of art in natural history, the legacy of colonialism, and the current realities of environmental degradation.

The common grackle is one of 435 hand-colored engravings in birds of america © National Museums of Scotland

Nearly a meter high (printed on so-called double elephant sheets), Audubon’s life-size illustrations are undeniably dynamic, depicting each species in a stylized natural environment. Beautifully intricate, they set a standard of natural history illustration that is still highly regarded, setting the stage for later ornithologists including Edward Lear and Henry Constantine Richter.

There is an undercurrent of violence in Audubon’s work. His huge, muscular birds of prey claw at the flesh of rabbits, fish and frogs, frequently drawing blood, reflecting the brutality of the artist’s practice as a hunter. Audubon studied species in the wild before collecting his own specimens, later manipulating them into elaborate, spun poses. As such, his birds often appear in unnatural positions, both twisted and hunched, revealing an inherent tension between scientific naturalism and dramatic, even romantic grandeur.

One of Audobon’s prints depicting Carolina parakeets, now extinct © National Museums of Scotland

While the accuracy of his illustrations and the large number of birds he killed have been disputed, Audubon’s contribution to the study of natural history remains influential. He identified more than 20 new birds during his fieldwork. Two centuries later, his series documents a number of species – from the passenger pigeon to the Carolina parakeet – that have since gone extinct. The exhibit concludes with a film examining the plight of currently endangered avian species.

Nevertheless, Audubon’s reputation as a white nationalist slave owner with an active interest in phrenology rightly generated new waves of
controversial. “His indictment is substantial” wrote Claudia Massie of The Spectator of the show in Scotland, “and, frankly, it’s a miracle that this show even exists.”

“We think it’s important to engage with difficult historical realities, rather than pretending they didn’t happen,” says curator Oliver McCall, “and we recognize the need to do so to meaningful and sensitive way.” Compton Verney has worked closely with National Museums Scotland and Elizabeth Lawal of More than a moment group to enrich the exhibition’s contextual information, aiming, McCall continues, “to disentangle Audubon, the historical figure, from the mythologized creator of birds of america.”

A winter falcon, as described by John James Audubon in his book birds of america © National Museums of Scotland

Even more strikingly, the gallery has decided to remove Audubon’s name from the title of the exhibition, following a decision by the Seattle Chapter of the National Audubon Society in 2022. “We were mindful of recognizing the ethical complexities surrounding Audubon,” notes McCall. “These we cannot change.” But the deletion of Audubon’s name helps focus the exhibition’s attention on “the work itself, which is a truly unique creation and landmark in the field of ornithology and history. naturalism”.

birds of americaCompton Verney, Warwickshire, July 1-October 1

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