Friday, 1 January 2010

John James Audubon (1785-1851) , American Painter of birds


I am researching the life of fellow American John James Audubon  (1785-1851) who was a painter of birds.  I am particularly interested in the time he spent in Liverpool and would be grateful for any information or leads you may be able to provide.
Happy New Year

Alb Watts-Johnston
New York



  1. Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French naval captain and a chambermaid. Brought up by his stepmother in France, he was settled by his father in Pennsylvania to escape conscription by Napoleon. There he roamed for twenty years, hunting, shooting and drawing all the birds he could find. Audubon was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America , but for half a century he was the country’s dominant wildlife artist. He spent more than a decade in business, eventually travelling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky – then the frontier – and setting up a dry-goods store in Henderson.

    He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as a daughter who died in infancy.

    With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. Failing to find a publisher in the United States he came to Europe with letters of introduction to enable him to form the connections he needed. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England. "The American Woodsman" was literally an overnight success. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era. He landed in Liverpool and his journal provides us with an account of his success and of life in Liverpool at the time.

    He eventually had his "Birds of North America" printed in double elephant folio format so that all the 435 species of birds could be depicted life size. One of the most prized possessions of the Homby Library, Liverpool, is a copy of the work, and possibly the most valuable, as the last one to be auctioned in 2000 raised $8.8 million.

    He was befriended by Richard Rathbone who took him to the Town Hall and introduce him to Liverpool society. He spent much time at the Rathbone family home at Greenbank and formed a strong attachment to Richard's sister, Hannah. William Roscoe arranged for his drawings to be exhibited at the Royal Institution, and for Lord Stanley (who, as Lord Derby, later became Prime Minister) to see them. He then encouraged him to mount a further exhibition at which people paid to enter. After only five weeks, Audubon had formed the connections and gained the confidence to travel further to Edinburgh and London where he would find an engraver willing and able to print and colour the drawings for publication following his exacting specifications.

    Audubon was ever grateful for the help he had been given in Liverpool for his eventual success and named two birds that he discovered Rathbone's Warbler and Roscoe's Yellow Throat. The last print was issued in 1838, by which time Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, travelled the USA several times in search of birds, and settled in New York City. He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work of mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was largely completed by his sons Audubon spent his last years in senility and died at age 65. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.


    Rob Ainsworth
    Programme Secretary & Web Administrator
    Liverpool History Society

  2. Thanks for the question Alb Watts-Johnston, and thanks to Rob Ainsworth for that exhaustive answer. As Rob stated, Richard Rathbone was a patron of American naturalist artist John James Audubon. For more on the Rathbones and Audubon, see Rathbone Family at

  3. Also the University of Liverpool Art Collections have the largest collection of Audubon's work outside the US. I think that many of these are on public display in the Victoria Gallery and Museum off Brownlow Hill, Liverpool. They also have a website.