Book Review: Audubon’s Elephant by Duff Hart-Davis

by Ahalya on April 8, 2012

If I had seen Audubon’s Elephant on the shelf of a bookstore I would have instantly grabbed it (and not put it back). But it wasn’t I who found it in the store, it was my wife. And I am glad she bought it.

Any naturalist worth his binoculars knows that the French-American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, John James Audubon, is best known for his work The Birds of America, today referred to as an ornithological masterpiece. The Birds of America comprises 497 species of birds painted by Audubon and reproduced by his engravers on 435 plates. But few people have been interested in knowing how Audubon accomplished this.

Duff Hart-Davis’s book, Audubon’s Elephant, narrates Audubon’s struggle to complete his seminal work. Audubon was the first artist of the time to paint birds in action, in their natural habitat, with leaves and flowers in the background. Other artists before him produced very flat, clinical paintings. Audubon painted the birds life-size and insisted they be produced thus in double-elephant format1. The size of the painting made it impossible for Audubon to find a publisher or engraver in America, forcing him to seek a publisher in England. Audubon knew this was going to be a difficult and expensive task and had no idea how it would take shape, but was determined to see it through.

The book opens on 21 July 1826 when Audubon arrives at Liverpool, carrying his leather bound, 39.5 by 29.5 inch portfolio weighing 100 lbs, 340 pounds, and many letters of introduction to prominent people, seeking subscriptions2 for his work which would aid its publication. But after just 11 pages, we reach Chapter 2: Wanderer, in which the author takes us back in time and gives us an overview of Audubon’s life – the period between 1785-1826. In the next 30 pages, we are told about his immigration to America from France, his early life, how he met Lucy, whom he married, his various businesses which failed, the financial hardships he went through, his travels in America during which he painted portraits to earn money, him meeting with other naturalists and ornithologists, his decision to stop being a business man and dedicate all his time being an artist and getting his work published, and his subsequent travels to paint all the species of birds in America. From the third chapter onwards, the author, Duff Hart-Davis, returns to 1826 and continues his detailed account of Audubon’s life in England, the numerous people he met and the friends he made. He also liberally intersperses the text with excerpts from Audubon’s own diaries and letters to reveal Audubon’s moods, thoughts, experiences, and plans. Duff Hart-Davis also tells us what Audubon’s critics and competitors (other artists, ornithologists and naturalists) thought of him and how they added to his struggle to get his work recognised.

For the production of The Birds of America, Audubon met a lot of people, travelled a lot within England and also made trips to America to paint new species. Duff Hart-Davis tries to follow Audubon through his various activities, sometimes running out of breath chasing Audubon’s brush since he painted every waking hour. A lot of details and incidents have been crammed into 230 pages making the flow of the narrative jerky.

Audubon’s disappointments in his quest for subscriptions have been etched out in detail, his search for a skilled engraver who could handle his elephantine project is dealt with satisfactorily, so is his partnership with MacGillivray who helped in writing the five volumes of Ornithological Biography 3. But there is little information of how his engraver Havell felt about Audubon, especially since this was the most challenging work at the time and Audubon found numerous faults in his work at crucial periods in the project. Audubon lost quite some subscribers because the reproductions were not up to mark, packaged wrongly, or deliveries were delayed. Nor is there much said about MacGillivray who, though Audubon would not admit it, was invaluable in writing the volumes of Ornithological Biography. English was not one of Audubon’s strengths, he needed MacGillivray as his editor and the fact that he was a ‘trained anatomist and an excellent writer free of jealousy and self-importance’ only benefited Audubon. Therefore, it is important to know how they felt about the work they were producing, or the man they were working with.

Having said that, the book gives a good overall feel of what Audubon was like. It brings to life his struggle in getting his work accepted by ornithologists, his art recognised for its quality, and finally subscriptions for his book. The author’s research and objective compilation leaves little desire to read another biography of Audubon. In conclusion, if you were to read one book about Audubon, I suggest it be this one.

Double Elephant Folio: The largest books and prints produced in the 19th century were in the Double Elephant Folio size. This is the paper used for the Audubon Havell and Bein bird prints, which measure approximately 26 1/2 x 39 inches. Only a few books have ever been produced on this scale, and thus Double Elephant Folio has become synonomous with Audubon’s great work.
Subscriptions: The author says, ‘It was common practice at that time for artists to seek subscribers who would pay for each part of a work as it was published.’
Ornithological Biography: Descriptions of the birds in The Birds of America, essays on Audubon’s observations, experiences, and adventures, were compiled in five volumes titled Ornithological Biography.

  1.  Double Elephant Folio: The largest books and prints produced in the 19th century were in the Double Elephant Folio size. This is the paper used for the Audubon Havell and Bein bird prints, which measure approximately 26 1/2 x 39 inches. Only a few books have ever been produced on this scale, and thus Double Elephant Folio has become synonomous with Audubon’s great work.
  2. Subscriptions: The author says, ‘It was common practice at that time for artists to seek subscribers who would pay for each part of a work as it was published.’
  3. Ornithological Biography: Descriptions of the birds in The Birds of America, essays on Audubon’s observations, experiences, and adventures, were compiled in five volumes titled Ornithological Biography.

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