Exhibition turns spotlight on one of world's rarest, most coveted and valuable books - The Leamington Observer

Exhibition turns spotlight on one of world's rarest, most coveted and valuable books

Leamington Editorial 25th Jun, 2023   0

THE STORY of one of the world’s rarest and most valuable books is told in a new exhibition at Compton Verney.

Birds of America, running from July 1 to October 1 at the country house art gallery, features 46 plates revealing the artistry of the book, Birds of America, by John James Audubon.

When first published as a four volume series between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America was instantly recognised as a landmark work of ornithological illustration.

It achieved international renown, not only due to the epic scale of Audubon’s ambition to paint every bird species in North America, which took almost 12 years to complete, but also the book’s spectacular, life-sized illustrations.

In recent years, Audubon’s achievements have been regarded in a different light. While his predecessors and contemporaries had illustrated birds looking stiff and unnatural, his pioneering approach had required him to pin stuffed subjects into the realistic poses he had observed in life.

Indeed, to accommodate the life-sized birds, the book was printed on paper which was almost a metre long but even then, some larger species had to be modeled in contorted positions, in order to fit them onto the page.

And much as he is traditionally celebrated as the quintessential American woodsman, adventurer and naturalist, who identified over 20 species new to science, Audubon’s story is full of contradiction and controversy, and the exhibition looks at both the legend which built up around him and the more complex, problematic realities.

He profited from the ownership of enslaved people and showed disdain towards the abolitionist movement – all aspects of which have been overlooked until recently. His scientific standing is also disputed, with Audubon today accused of completely fabricating several species and misidentifying others.

While the exhibition will positively reflect on Audubon’s conservationist credentials it will not shy away from the fact that he was a prolific hunter, who killed many birds in order to complete his drawings.

Reflecting this, the Compton Verney exhibition will bring the story up to the present day, looking at the conservation status of some of the species featured in Birds of America.

Today only 120 complete copies of Birds of America are known to exist and they are rarely on display. A set sold in New York in 2018 for $9.65 million.

The framed plates featured in the Compton Verney exhibition are drawn from the National Museums Scotland Library collection. The majority have never been shown in public and have undergone years of conservation treatment in preparation for this exhibition.

Compton Verney CEO Geraldine Collinge said: “Birds of America is one of the most beautiful books in the world, and the story of its creation is extraordinary and challenging.

“This exhibition from National Museums Scotland gives visitors a once-in-a generation opportunity to view so many of the prints together in one place and appreciate the scale and ambition of Audubon’s great work. Audubon was, and remains, a contradictory and controversial figure and the exhibition examines the myths and the reality behind this American icon.”

Visit www.comptonverney.org.uk for further details.


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