This touring exhibition is a unique opportunity to display a selection of National Museums Scotland’s collection of prints from Audubon’s remarkable masterpiece The Birds of America.
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was the most influential ornithological artist of the 19th century, revolutionising natural history art. His unique illustrations for The Birds of America make it one of the most famous and spectacular rare books in the world.
The Birds of America contains stunning hand-coloured and life-size prints of birds from North America and Canada, presented on double elephant folio paper. They were published over an 11 year period (1827-38) with the first ten plates engraved in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The exhibition will also include material connected to Audubon to tell the story of how The Birds of America project was realised, putting it into context with his predecessors and contemporaries. It will also consider the birds he studied and his influence on wildlife art and conservation.
This exhibition will illustrate the following themes:
• The scale of the artwork
Audubon insisted that the illustrations had to be life-size, so they were printed on double-elephant folio paper (approx. 38 x 26 inches).
• Audubon’s art
How he depicted scenes from nature, his working practices and his influence on other bird illustrators.
• Audubon and Scotland
Working with William Home Lizars to engrave and publish The Birds of America, and his links with the scientific community in Edinburgh, Scotland.
• The subscription
The Birds of America was published in fascicles of 5 prints. The huge scale of the undertaking – 435 illustrations in total – meant that Audubon had to rely on specimens to complete the work.
• The art of the engraver and colourist
The exhibition will compare an uncoloured version of a print next to its coloured version to demonstrate the printing process. It will also examine how prints differ slightly (using an interactive display).
It will explore some of the 25 species new to science identified by Audubon, but also his errors in identification.
Audubon’s awareness of changing habitats and the National Audubon Society’s role in conservation.
• What Audubon did next
His later publications Ornithological Biography (with William MacGillivray), and The viviparous quadrupeds of North America.