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Sunday, December 16, 2001
'Art and Soul

Remembering a painter of birds
B.N. Goswamy

AT the first mention of a great painter of birds, our own thoughts, in this part of the world, might naturally wander in a different direction, but the name likely to come to most minds in the West would be that of John James Audubon. In fact, a celebrated album of this Haiti-born painter, The Birds of America, has often been spoken of as "arguably the highest achievement of ornithological art". Some notion of the value attached to his work may be formed by the fact that, just last year, one of the last such albums to come on the market-bought in 1911 for less than 600 pounds sterling— was estimated to fetch something between 3 and 4 million dollars. Clearly, Audubon is a name to conjure with, in this field.

Picture of A Wild Turkey by John James Audubon
Picture of A Wild Turkey by John James Audubon

Born in 1785 in Santo Domingo, John James— his name in the records was entered as Jean-Jacque Fougere Audubon—was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain from his Creole mistress. Together with his half-sister, however, he was duly legally adopted when he was taken to France at the age of six. There he spent some years, receiving elementary education, and some instruction in drawing by none else than the great classical painter, David. But, in these growing years, there was already a glimmer of what was to become his lifelong passion: nothing interested young Jean-Jacques more than collecting specimens of birds in the course of his countryside rambles, birds that he hunted, stuffed and then drew. The year 1807 found him in the United States, near Philadelphia; here, too, however, he was in the midst of countryside again, for his father owned a large farm there.

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Another quick move followed, and John James - this was his name now — went on, together with his newly-married wife, to Kentucky with its vast and wild spaces, filled with a whole range of birds that he could hunt at will and draw. These were happy and exciting times, for the young painter was constantly sharpening his sight, honing his skills. There were people there from whom, or from whose example, he could also learn. A distinguished ornithologist settled in those parts, Alexander Wilson, had already published the first two volumes of his pioneering work on American birds. But John James found that he could draw better than Wilson; he also developed a new method of mounting dead birds on wires as an aid to more accurate drawing. Although not a full-time painter of birds yet - formally, he was a merchant and a miller - he was fast moving in the direction of becoming one, for his businesses were not doing well. The idea of publishing his drawings of birds, in the manner of Wilson, was beginning to take shape.

By 1820, John James' mind was made up. He moved to Louisiana to extend his studies of birds further; from there to a huge plantation near New Orleans; and then on to Mississippi. He had become an itinerant painter and tutor, turning out brilliant studies of birds, capturing the splendour and the beauty of natural life in masterful designs. The meticulous observation, the photographic attention to detail, the crisp rendering, were all beyond compare. And it was not only the proud pelican, the timid grouse, the incredibly elegant swan, the eager duck, or the wild turkey, that one saw in his work, but a scientific sweep in which he covered entire species, and sub-species, of birds on the continent. He was ready to publish his work in a few years, but there were difficulties. The years that followed read like a saga of tireless effort, for John James Audubon was not willing to compromise on quality when it came to publication. The format that he had in mind was monumental. For he was insistent that each species be shown life-size, and that all the known species found in North America be included: conditions that were not easy to meet. Originally, his idea was to bring out his Birds of America serially, in 80 parts of five plates each. But, slowly, the final count rose to 435 plates, in 87 parts. Unsuccessful in finding, in Philadelphia or New York, the right entrepreneurs, and collaborators - for the most skilled of engravers and printers were needed for the job - he decided to travel in 1826 to England. For it is there that he hoped to come in contact with members of the scientific community whom he might be able to enthuse, as also engravers who were competent to take the job in hand.

Audubon was right on both counts. The excitement his work caused in England was enormous, and he befriended botanists and historians, ornithologists and collectors, besides, of course, printers and engravers. But finding the money needed was still not easy. He decided, under the advice of another "friend", the American Consul in England, therefore, to publish his great work "by subscription", a traditional method of raising funds in advance of the publication, which it was anticipated would take 14 years to complete. It took twelve. But for everyone, every single subscriber it seemed, all the waiting was worth it. Audubon's The Birds of America, from Original Drawings, with 435 Plates, Showing 1,065 Figures - this was only part of the complete title - published in four volumes (1827-38), with an accompanying text Ornithological Biography in five royal octavo volumes (1831-39), was instantly hailed as a masterpiece: "the greatest colour plate book ever published"; "one of the most fantastic instances of talent and energy in the history of American Art".

A master of our own

Our thoughts, in this part of the world, move in a different direction at the mention of a great painter of birds, as I said. For one thinks instantly of Mansur, that incomparable 17th century figure at the Mughal court, whom the Emperor Jahangir used to call Nadir al-Asr, 'Wonder of the Age'. Fortunately, many of Ustad Mansur's stunning studies of birds have survived, shot through not merely with accuracy of observation and rendering, but with an extraordinary sympathy for these winged creatures. In many of them, one senses the master painter rendering not a simply verifiable likeness of a species, but an actual, individuated portrait of a bird, alive and animated.

Little wonder that the Emperor lavished great praise upon his painter. For he matched the painter's observation, and love of nature, with his own. Consider the Emperor's description of a turkey, lately brought to the court as an exotic bird by Muqarrab Khan: " … in body it is larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock. When it is in heat and displays itself, it spreads out its feathers like the peacock … Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different colour. When it is in heat, it is quite red - one might say it has adorned itself with red coral - and after a while it becomes white in the same places …. It sometimes looks of a turquoise colour. Like a chameleon it constantly changes … (but) round its eyes it is always of a turquoise colour, and does not change…."

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