Since “John James Audubon” is synonymous with “birds,” the elephant reference in the title is rather curious. As the author hints in his introduction, it’s used for a comparison. Like an elephant, Birds of America dwarfed all its competitors in size. Also like an elephant, it had an extraordinarily long gestation period.
Focusing this book on Audubon’s work rather than on his life, Hart-Davis begins in 1826 with Audubon’s arrival in England. The self-taught naturalist and painter had only his hundred-pound portfolio, several letters of introduction, and a vague plan to collect subscribers for a book. He hoped that these people would agree to buy his bird paintings as they were printed and would finance the eventual publication of a seven volume set of full-colour, life size prints. It was an ambitious project, one which would not be completed until 1844. Audubon spent those eighteen years in a flurry of energy. He crossed the Atlantic eight times, toured both Britain and continental Europe looking for subscribers; and carried out a dozen wilderness expeditions to discover new bird species.
In light of the demanding nature of his book, I think the title could also be an allusion to the fabled white elephant, a gift so extravagant and costly that it could bring to ruin any man who tried to maintain it. Audubon’s work certainly came close to ruining him on several occasions. Even though it succeeded, the cost was very high. He invested his entire physical and emotional resources in it, drawing and writing twelve to fourteen hours a day, traveling hundreds of miles on hunting expeditions, and battling with subscribers and competitors. That effort may have been what robbed him of his sight, by the time he was sixty, and, in the last years of his life, of his mind, before his death at the age of sixty-five.
Such a tempestuous, driven life is a biographer’s dream. Hart-Davis seems to approach his subject in admiration, but the inspired painter comes across as a less than likeable figure. It is easy to see why so many people were divided in their opinion of him. He could be charming to those he wished to please, but at the same time he stirred up animosity amounting almost to hatred in others. Indifference was not an option. He was quite vain about his appearance, mourning the cutting of his luxurious locks of hair with a mock funeral notice in his journal. His desire for approval and recognition often led him to slight the work of others. He hired William MacGivillary to rewrite his bird essays, smoothing over the rough prose and contributing, as Audubon put it, “the science.” But when the book was published, Audubon denied him any credit as co-author. Worse, when Macgivilary published his own work, critics sneered at it because it tried to emulate Audubon’s’ style, which was in fact his own.
As a frenetic, obsessed, and egotistical paragon of talent, Audubon remains as much a treasure for biographers as his paintings are for collectors. Hart-Davis does an impressive job of showcasing both. His biography is reinforced with journal entries and letters from Audubon, bringing the man himself before us in all his monomaniacal greatness. And he includes many colour reproductions of Audubon’s prints, as well as pictures of the painter himself, to show what all the fuss was about. The fuss, by the way, continues to this day. The last time a complete set of Birds of America
was put up for auction, it sold for $8.8 million. Audubon would have been pleased, but not, I imagine, surprised.