Audubon's Birds of America

Collection Spotlight

Audubon's Birds of America

Created by one of the world’s foremost naturalists, the paintings of John James Audubon depict North American creatures in their natural habitat.

Audubon was born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785 and raised in France. It was here where he developed his love of nature and an aptitude for drawing birds. When he reached the age of 18, his father sent him to America to avoid conscription into the Napoleonic Wars and to enter into business.

Audubon’s fascination with the natural world continued into his adult years. His passion for the portraiture of birds from across the continent combined his talents as both artist and scientist. Beginning in the 1820s, Audubon travelled the United States and into Canada. He created 435 paintings of over 450 species of birds, each life-sized, from the smallest hummingbird to the grandest flamingo. Through the Birds of America project, these paintings were reproduced as colour plates, and originally sold through subscription.

Artistic process

Audubon painted the original portraits in North America. The paintings were then sent to England. There, the engraver and printer Havell produced the images through copperplate etching and hand-applied water colour. The complete run of plates was sent to subscribers in 87 sets of 5 plates each. The collection is now commonly known as the “double elephant folio” edition. This moniker is a direct reference to the impressive size of the paper on which the plates were produced, measuring about 100 cm tall by 70 cm wide.

In the Library’s collection

The Library’s collection has held three complete sets of Birds of America, as this series of plates is known. The Legislative Council of Canada and the Legislative Library acquired the first two sets from Audubon in 1842, when he was visiting Kingston, Canada’s capital at the time. These two sets were moved when the legislature relocated to Montréal. They were lost to fire when Parliament was burned by protesters in 1849. The present copy was acquired in 1857 after the Library of Parliament approached the family of Audubon (who died in 1851) for a replacement set.

This copy was purchased during a time of great interest and discovery in natural history and biology. Authors such as Darwin and Mendel were introducing ground-breaking ideas. Audubon’s Birds of America was considered the premier work on ornithology available at the time, making its content as important to Parliament as its value as a beautiful artefact.

Birds of America contains representations of several species of birds that have since become extinct. The Library’s copy also contains some unique features such as composite plates, in which Audubon added additional details to the plate, and some notes and sketches in the margins that Audubon may have inserted himself.

Restoration and conservation of the plates

Originally four enormous volumes, the Library’s copy of the Birds of America suffered wear and tear from years of use. The Library partnered with the Canadian Conservation Institute in the 1980s and 1990s to preserve the condition of the plates. The Institute rebound the plates in 17 smaller volumes made specifically to ensure the long-term preservation of the work. Inserts have been placed between the pages to prevent bleed-through of colour. Additional inserts placed along the spine, called guard hinges, reduce pressure on the bound edge of each plate.

Mixed Legacy

While Audubon’s artistic and ornithological work have received a great deal of attention, further examination of the man himself reveals a problematic historical figure. Audubon was a slave owner and spoke out against emancipation, and his published writings, which include commentary on the Indigenous people he encountered during his travels across North America, express racist views and a colonialist mindset.

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