- since 2011 -

Wings of desire

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Up close and personal with the artist whose book gives billionaires sleepless nights

Purple Heron, one of the fabulous plates from the book

Purple Heron, one of the fabulous plates from the book

Records fell at auction in New York and London this week, with two sensational prices made in very different fields. Taking pride of place [in New York] was a marble bust of Antinous, the beautiful youth beloved of Emperor Hadrian... The bust's $2m-$3m estimate was left in the dust when a European collector, during an 11-minute three-way bidding battle, was forced to pay $23.8m for the prize.

On the same day in London, a four-volume double-elephant folio of Audubon's Birds of America also flew to great heights at Sotheby's sale of printed books. It made £7.3m ($11.5m), a new record for a printed book at auction, trouncing the previous record set for a different copy of the same work: that one went to Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar in 2000, who paid $8.8m (£5.6m) at the time.

Not that I'm always inspecting the Collecting bit in the Life & Arts section of the FT Weekend, but last December the familiar image of a flamingo on page 14, its S-shaped neck stooped alongside its long thin legs, shook me from Saturday morning stupor. John James Audubon, who disembarked with a dream at Liverpool on 21 July 1826 - the same year that The Last of the Mohicans was published - was in the news again.

I've blogged about this cat before. Born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French cargo ship captain and Creole mother, he was raised in France then spirited to North America to escape the Napoleonic draft. At the age of 41 he sailed to England to find subscribers for a grand monomaniacal project: a large-scale book of life-size, action-packed paintings of every bird species native to (what would become) the United States.

A volume of the Central Library copy open at White Headed Eagle

A volume of the Central Library copy open at White Headed Eagle

The Rathbone family took him under their wing, so to speak, at their Greenbank residence in south Liverpool and introduced him to wider society whom he entranced with 'Red Indian' war cries, owl hoots and tales from the frontier. A blockbuster exhibition of his work at the Royal Institution on Colquitt Street was arranged with the help of local polymath William Roscoe.

A dozen years passed while Audubon voyaged assiduously to and fro across the Atlantic, as if it were a bus ride, and explored the American interior for bird species - the whole of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida, and the Ohio and Mississippi river systems from Kentucky to Louisiana, and west to Texas which was then a separate Republic - before 200 sets of the work were finally published in London with craftsmen etching his striking watercolours onto copper plates then hand-colouring the prints.

Today it's the world's most valuable natural history book and, as one rare book dealer in London has described it, "the greatest book on American heritage - there is no competition." Only 119 complete copies are known to exist, of which 108 are held by museums and libraries with the remaining eleven in private collections. Next January another copy goes up for auction, this time at Christie's New York in the Rockefeller Centre.

American Flamingo (left) and John James Audubon painted by John Syme in 1826, from The White House Collection Washington DC

American Flamingo (left) and John James Audubon painted by John Syme in 1826, from The White House Collection Washington DC

It's hard to overestimate what Audubon means to America. A national society akin to our RSPB is named in his honour, and his story is part of the country's mythology. As a chronicler of the 'sacred' American wilderness, he shares the same artistic canon as writers Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, and painters Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand and Frederic Church. When I think back I can still hear one of Church's paintings: in the late afternoon of 28 March 2002 I visited a Tate Britain exhibition called American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880, and in Room 4, which had the subtitle Awful Grandeur, I stood mesmerised before his panoramic canvas of Niagara Falls and its crashing, roaring water.

Where's the big-screen version of Audubon? Roland Emmerich, director of that new movie about Shakespearean London, should get his CGI team to recreate Liverpool's mast-forested docklands in the early 19th century, the thriving town bordered to the southeast by sprawling Toxteth Park and the northwest by verdant Kirkdale and Everton.

On a smoky wharf swarming with human traffic and horse-drawn drays, rugged yet charming frontiersman Audubon (Liam Neeson) bids farewell to the genial captain of the cotton schooner (Michael Angelis) that carried him from New Orleans and, after a dismal evening at one of the town's seedier boarding houses, hails a phaeton carriage with a lugubrious driver (Stephen Graham) to salvation in the form of the benevolent William Rathbone (Les Dennis) and his timid daughter Hannah Mary (Jennifer Ellison), their august neighbour William Roscoe (Paul O'Grady) and his patronising butler (Andrew Schofield), and two kind-hearted if somewhat uncouth scullery maids (Tina Malone and Margi Clark). Writes itself.

Adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever fetched for printed books were for copies of Birds of America, according to The Economist. Last December's successful bidder was Michael Tollemache, a London art dealer and keen bird-watcher who rather cryptically told reporters, "I intend to enjoy it for however long I am able to enjoy it."

Prior to its sale the book had travelled from London to New York and back again. In the Wall Street Journal writer Ellen Gamerman described 'the four volumes each fastened with double locks, covered in blankets and bubble-wrap and secured inside a crate... Sotheby's invited 20 serious potential bidders to a private luncheon and a cocktail reception in New York (chicken and duck were excluded from the menu, as is the practice at Sotheby's events for ornithological work)'.

There's a complete digitised version of the double elephant folio set (i.e. all four books) at the University of Pittsburgh website. But nothing beats seeing Birds of America for real and appreciating its profound beauty and universal value. Each volume measures 4ft across when fully opened and weighs almost 4st and I'd be staggered, seriously, if in 2013 there's a better setting in the world than Liverpool's Central Library to display them.

Aerial view of Central Library & Picton Reading Room (right) as we'll know and love it from 2013

Aerial view of Central Library & Picton Reading Room (right) as we'll know and love it from 2013

Joyce Little, the Council's Head of Libraries & Information Services, is project-managing the redevelopment of the Central Library & Archive - a public-private initiative that will restore this venue to its former glory and then some. In her Millennium House office on Victoria Street she shows me an onscreen fly-thru of its refurbished entrance with rooftop terrace and state-of-the-art interior with skylight oculus (round window in the ceiling), adjacent to the historic, drum-shaped Picton Reading Room.

Set to re-open in spring 2013, it's the last piece in the re-energised William Brown Street jigsaw, linking World Museum Liverpool and the Walker Art Gallery in what Pevsner's Architectural Guide already calls 'a piece of romantic classical urban scenery [with] no equal in England'. The Library's own copy of Birds of America was provided by one Joseph Shipley, a Delaware businessman and friend of William Brown himself, the Irish cotton trader who emigrated to the States in 1800 and settled back in Liverpool 12 years later.

Picton Reading Room with Audubon volume (left foreground) as it was formerly displayed

Picton Reading Room with Audubon volume (left foreground) as it was formerly displayed

"We've always had one of the volumes on display in the Picton Reading Room," says Joyce. "Now we're having a separate area, the Oak Room, dedicated to it. Previously this lovely room has only opened for Heritage Weekends or upon special request. Now people will be able to walk in and experience the architecture of both the Hornby Library and Oak Room as well as our rarest books.

"When one of the Birds of America volumes is opened it's the size of a dining table, and the colours are wonderful. Every illustration is hand-tinted and there are over 400 of them. It had a narrow escape in the Second World War when the Library took a direct hit and it was rescued not just from the flames but the floods caused by firemen fighting the blaze. It's fantastic for the people of this city that they collectively own this work of art."

The intimate Audubon Gallery © University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum

The intimate Audubon Gallery © University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum

There is already another room in the city dedicated to Audubon and it constitutes the largest collection of his oil paintings outside America. Dating from his time with the Rathbones at Greenbank, it's in the University of Liverpool's gorgeous Victoria Gallery & Museum at the top of Brownlow Hill, having moved from its old home on nearby Abercromby Square in 2008.

"We're the only place in Britain where you can come and see original work by Audubon," explains Moira Lindsay, the Curator of Art, while talking me through the display onsite. "Birds of America is a printed object, i.e. a book of prints of his hand-painted pictures of birds, whereas we have paintings, drawings and watercolours by him which are unique. Most of the collection came to us via the Rathbone family - if it hadn't been for them, we probably wouldn't have had the book - and the Royal Institution, which was Liverpool's first arts venue before we had a gallery or museum."

I love this building and this intimate, rosy-walled set-piece which feels less like a gallery space and more like a private room. Everything in here has an historic and geographic provenance that transforms Audubon from the distant, unknowable figure whose portrait hangs solemnly in the White House into a living and breathing, talented and tender human being.

Robin Perched on a Mossy Stone, JJ Audubon (1826) reproduced with kind permission of University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum

Robin Perched on a Mossy Stone, JJ Audubon (1826) reproduced with kind permission of University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum

The canvases, produced in quick succession by Audubon for his show at the Royal Institution in 1826, are: American Wild Turkey Cock; Otter Caught in a Trap; and Hawk Pouncing on Partridges. In one corner, in a small glass cabinet and inside an original rosewood frame, is a sketched self-portrait - the only one in the world - alongside a watercolour entitled A Robin Perched on a Mossy Stone and painted especially for Hannah Mary Rathbone, with whom he appeared to be smitten.

Audubon kept a journal, and an extract from his time at Greenbank reads: 'After breakfast Miss Hannah opened the window and her favourite robin hopped about the carpet, quite at home... It was my greatest wish to have affixed on the face of this drawing my real thoughts of the amiable lady for whom I made it in Poetry Divine! But an injunction from Hannah Rathbone against that wish of my Heart has put an end to it - and now I am forced to think only of her benevolence!'

The Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky

The Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky

Collectively the Victoria Gallery & Museum and Liverpool Central Library & Archive boast an Audubon offer to which only two Stateside establishments can hold a candle: the Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania where he settled upon his arrival from France in 1803, now marketing itself as 'The First Home of John James Audubon in America'; and the Audubon State Park & Museum in Henderson, Kentucky where he lived from 1810, today comprising forest, hiking trails and a collection of Audubon material donated by the widow of his great grandson.

Next January at the Christie's auction in New York the star attraction is sure to have a supporting cast of wealthy collectors there in person or represented by proxy. Among them may be Texas oil billionaire Lee Bass, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, hedge-fund heavyweight Paul Tudor Jones II, and Madison Avenue antique dealer Walter Graham Aradner III, who states on his own blogsite: 'My goal is give away all my wealth by the time I am 70 about 11 years from now'.

Ellen Gamerman again from December 2010's Wall Street Journal: 'Last month, bounding through his Upper East Side gallery in gym shorts, Mr Arader said the new set was far too expensive for him to purchase. [But] after viewing the book while it was briefly in New York, that has changed. "It's just really, really gotten to me," he says. "I just can't sleep at night"...

'Mr Arader bought a set of Birds of America in 1979 for $900,000 and spent three years unsuccessfully trying to sell it. He eventually broke up the book and sold it plate by plate - a move that fuelled criticism of him in the rare-book world. "I did a wicked thing," he says. He vows not to repeat the practice if he gets this set'.

'I'd be staggered, seriously, if in 2013 there's a better setting in the world to display Audubon's Birds of America than Liverpool's Central Library'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
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Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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