Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 4

Poor Audubon. He had a talent and a love for ornithology, and he had a happy marriage. But from the end of the War of 1812 to the early 1820s he could not make a worthy investment to save his life, and indeed the deaths of his infant daughters weighed very heavily upon him.

Audubon took his family and moved to New Orleans in 1819, where he and Lucy found salaried positions as private teachers for some of the well established families there. While the Audubon family found some stability during this time, both financial and emotional, John felt his ornithological opportunities beginning to fade.

With Lucy still very popular and in high demand in New Orleans, Audubon decided to make a trip up to Kentucky and New York with his oldest (14) son Victor in the Summer of 1823. Lucy and the younger children were secure in Louisiana, and Audubon's sense of adventure, along with a growing desire to focus on his naturalist interest and be recognized for his work, drove the men up north. Audubon does not include details of this trip, although he and Victor were both way-layed with yellow fever in Louisville, and Mrs. Audubon had to come nurse them back to health despite their best attempt at self-sufficiency.

Audubon still had a fine reputation as an artist and a naturalist, but he had not done much to establish himself within the growing networks of professional and internationally recognized ornithologists. Leaving Victor to study painting and drawing in Shippingport, PA (Audubon assures us this was Victor's interest, and not at all prompted by his father), Audubon continued on to Philadelphia. With his connections in Philadelphia, Audubon was able to meet and hobb-nobb with the city's elite, and even find some venues for his artwork. It was during the spring and summer of 1824 that he acquainted himself with the likes of such bird-brained people as Charles Lucien Bonaparte (nephew to Napoleon), Sir Edward Harris, Dr. John Bachman, George Ord (who became Audubon's anonymous nemesis), Dr. Richard Harlan and many other distinguished and published people.

Looking at these last names, one can tell this was an auspicious gathering in American natural history. Almost all of them have at least 1 species of bird to their namesake, and some have many more. It was from this exposure that Audubon gained the necessary capital and encouragement to compile and publish  the first edition of Birds of America. At the time, the demand and funding for such things was to be found predominantly in England so Audubon had to remove himself to foggy Albion and delay his return to Lucy. Birds of America was published through 5 editions, with a total of 435 plates showing 1035 figures of birds in total. This was published much to the envy and  excoriating, anonymous criticisms of Mr. George Ord, who had spent his time as a professional ornithologist continuing post-humous work on Wilson's Ornithologies. As one might imagine, his work was made obsolete by Audubon's superior compilation.

It's amazing to think of these first birding books and field guides. All of the illustrations were hand-drawn and then copied through an etching process. They would have lacked the proper proportions and technical accuracy of today's field guides, but have been thoroughly personalized. Additionally, the author could blend colors and shapes in a more organic way, and create a product that was probably less accurate, but also more artistic than many of today's models.

Audubon's books sold very well in England (there was still relatively little time and interest for such things in America), and he was quickly encouraged to produce more editions on his return to America. With significant and respectable support from the naturalist community, and a paying constituency behind him, Audubon felt compelled to build on his success. He spent the late summer and early fall amidst the swamps of New Jersey, hiring on extra help to aid in his gathering of specimens. Over the course of 4 months he found and drew 95 new bird species and 66 eggs. With these add-ons now done, Audubon could finally head back to Louisiana. He set out on a ferocious pace towards New Orleans, and was reunited with Lucy, whom he had not seen for several years,  in November of 1829.