Compton Verney hosts an exhibition this summer time of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-38), on tour from Nationwide Museums Scotland. Near 12 years within the making, the e book’s 435 hand-coloured prints supply a complete index of American ornithology, reflecting Audubon’s bold undertaking to doc each one of many nation’s fowl species. With its epic, nation-spanning scope, Birds of America anticipates the democratic catalogues of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, printed in 1855. “Right here isn’t merely a nation however a teeming Nation of countries,” wrote Whitman in his preface; one wonders if he had America’s various nation of birds in thoughts.
The exhibition attracts from the Nationwide Museums Scotland library assortment, which has considered one of solely 120 full copies of the sequence in existence. Nearly by no means displayed, the prints have undergone intensive conservation remedy, providing guests a fleeting alternative to view them of their large, multi-coloured splendour. Displayed alongside letters, images and manuscripts telling the story of the artworks and the controversial man behind them, Birds of America prompts precious questions concerning the position of artwork in pure historical past, the legacy of colonialism and the continuing realities of environmental breakdown.
Near a metre excessive (printed on so-called double elephant sheets), Audubon’s life-size illustrations are undeniably dynamic, portraying every species in a stylised pure surroundings. Fantastically intricate, they established a normal of pure historical past illustration that’s nonetheless extremely regarded, setting the stage for later ornithologists together with Edward Lear and Henry Constantine Richter.
There’s an undercurrent of violence in Audubon’s work. His big, muscular birds of prey claw on the flesh of rabbits, fish and frogs, continuously drawing blood, reflecting the brutality of the artist’s observe as a huntsman. Audubon would examine species within the wild earlier than amassing his personal specimens, later manipulating them into elaborate, wire-strung poses. As such, his birds usually seem in unnatural positions, each twisted and hunched, revealing an inherent pressure between scientific naturalism and dramatic, even Romantic, grandeur.
Whereas the accuracy of his illustrations and the huge variety of birds he killed has been contested, Audubon’s contribution to the examine of pure historical past stays influential. He recognized greater than 20 new birds throughout his fieldwork. Two centuries later, his sequence paperwork various species—from the passenger pigeon to the Carolina parakeet—which have since turn into extinct. The exhibition closes with a movie analyzing the plight of at present endangered avian species.
Nonetheless, Audubon’s repute as a white nationalist slave proprietor with an lively curiosity in phrenology has rightly generated new waves of
controversy. “His cost sheet is substantial,” wrote the Spectator’s Claudia Massie of the present in Scotland, “and, frankly, it’s a miracle this exhibition even exists.”
“We really feel that you will need to interact with troublesome historic realities, reasonably than fake that they didn’t occur,” says the curator Oliver McCall, “and are acutely aware of the necessity to do that in a significant and delicate means.” Compton Verney has labored intently with Nationwide Museums Scotland and Elizabeth Lawal of the Extra Than a Second group to reinforce the exhibition’s contextual info, aiming, McCall continues, “to disentangle Audubon the historic determine from the mythologised creator of Birds of America.”
Most strikingly, the gallery has determined to drop Audubon’s title from the exhibition’s title, following a call by the Seattle chapter of the Nationwide Audubon Society in 2022. “We have been acutely aware to recognise the moral complexities surrounding Audubon,” notes McCall. “These we will’t change.” However eradicating Audubon’s title helps draw the exhibition’s focus to “the work itself, which is a very distinctive creation and a landmark within the subject of ornithology and the historical past of naturalism”.
• Birds of America, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 1 July-1 October