Guest post by Edward Spencer.
I like birds… I am not sure when this interest took hold, but I feel that there is something soothing and comforting about watching the little guys potter about. Their lives seem so beautifully simple yet each one has its own complex story. I also think that they add an additional element to art and photography, providing a focal point to a landscape, reflecting the mood of certain scenery or weather or just providing a way to show off your skills and perseverance. Therefore, when I became interested in photography, birds became my top challenge.
So when asked to write a post on art and science my brain quickly went to John James Audubon (1785-1851), the French-American painter, adventurer and birder who sailed into Britain in 1826 with his great work, the ‘Birds of America’.
This fantastic book consists of the life-sized portraits of around 500 different bird species that were printed on 40-inch sheets and hand-painted on assembly lines for all to buy – providing you could afford the printing fee, which in today’s money came to about $2 million.
But is Audubon more important as an artist or a scientist?
Well, although the answer is undoubtedly both I am going to lean on the side of science and play devil’s advocate to this art blog. And I do so for the following reasons:
1. Audubon spent far more time studying in the field than he did in the art studio. In order to produce the Birds of America he spent 14 years studying and drawing birds across the continent. This extensive research led to the successful identification of no less than 25 new species.
2. Audubon’s illustrations provide insights into the behaviour of each bird species and the diverse climates and landscapes of North America. Take, for example, his painting of the Green Herons, in which he shows one scampering after a Luna Moth while a rather worried-looking male youth tries to hide under some local vegetation. Many paintings like this informed viewers how each species lived and interacted with their own native environments.
3. The Birds of America provides some of the best existing documentation of a number of species that have since become extinct. Yes, more than just the poor dodo have become extinct in recent history …these include the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (below), the Carolina Parakeet (whose scarily similar relatives appear to be taking over London) and the Passenger Pigeon (which scientists plan to re-introduce to the world in clone form…because we need more pigeons apparently).
4. Audubon’s research left a legacy of scientific intrigue and awareness in North America that has helped conserve some of the world’s rare species. His book provided the first extensive reference guide for the identification of new species and raised alarms for those in decline. As a consequence the popular pastime of bird shooting evolved into the sport of birding – the strangely addictive hunt for different species that is sometimes taken a little too seriously.
In 1830, after publishing Birds of America, Audubon was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose ranks include Darwin and Oppenheimer to Duke Ellington and Alec Guinness. This fitting appointment sums up the man, although I believe that it was his inner scientist that created the legend. Copies of Birds of America now sell for over $10 million, with one copy placed as the 3rd most expensive book of all time (behind The Gospels of Henry the Lion and The Codex Leicester).
In my opinion, worth every penny.