“With the exception of the mockingbird, I know no species so gay and frolicksome” Audubon wrote of the red-headed woodpecker (Picus erythrocephalus).
Yesterday a copy of John James Audubon’s (1785-1851) epic Birds of America sold at auction for more than £7.3million. It’s the most expensive book in the world. And arguably the most beautiful. Only 119 complete copies of the book, published in sections from 1827 to 1838, are known to exist. 108 are in museums and libraries.
Audubon was a French-American naturalist, ornithologist and artist and it took him 12 years to complete his ambitious work. The book is huge; a size printers call double elephant. It has to be: it contains 435 hand-coloured life-sized engravings of 497 species.
Each species is illustrated showing male, female and juveniles in their natural habitat, exhibiting typical behaviour. Here’s the plate showing the now extinct Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis).
As you can see, not only does he give us high definition and painstakingly observed scientific detail, he also depicts each species with such beauty, that he seems to reveal some kind of fundamental truth.
Check out this detail of the eye of the barred owl (Strix nebulosa):
See what I mean? Phenomenal! I find each plate utterly compelling. As both a lover of and painter of birds this is the standard to which I aspire, knowing I can never reach it.
He observed each species closely while alive and used specimens he shot and mounted with wires to work from. Look at the elegance he pictured in the black-throated magpie-jay (Corvus bullockii), which he called the Columbia jay:
Audubon is widely honoured in place names, on stamps and he gives his name to the US equivalent of the RSPB or BTO: The Audubon Society. He work is even referred to by Darwin in the Origin of Species.
I find it hard to imagine that the Birds of America can ever be bettered. Browse the plates in detail on the University of Pittsburgh website. Be amazed! Audubon combined scientific observation and exquisite beauty. I think yesterday’s buyer got an absolute bargain.