A review by Rick Wright
Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology, by Edward H. Burtt, Jr., and William E. Davis, Jr.
Harvard University Press, 2013
444 pages, $35.00—hardcover
Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for the Birds of America, by Roberta J.M. Olson
Skira Rizzoli, 2012
448 pages, $85.00—hardcover
Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon met exactly twice. It didn’t go especially well either time.
In 1810, Wilson tried and failed to enlist the younger man as a subscriber to his American Ornithology. Some time on, Audubon looked his colleague up in Philadelphia; he would later write, famously, that Wilson
received me with civility…. [but] Mr Wilson spoke not of birds or drawings. Feeling, as I was forced to do, that my company was not agreeable, I parted from him; and after that I never saw him again.
Wilson was dead not long thereafter, the victim at age 47 of overwork and dysentery. Audubon survived him by nearly 40 years, never entirely out of the shadow of the man whose posthumous advocates called him the “Father of American Ornithology.”
This summer, the two are reunited in memory. The year 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the death of Wilson, on August 23, 1813, and the 150th anniversary of the New-York Historical Society’s acquisition, in July 1863, of Audubon’s 435 original watercolors for the Birds of America. Each of those occasions has now been commemorated in the publication of a book, both titles making available invaluable new material for the study of two of North America’s most important ornithologists.
Alexander Wilson is hardly more than a name to most of us, the dimly recalled eponym of a handful of birds and a venerable ornithological society. That should change with the publication of Burtt and Davis’s handsome Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology.
That title somewhat misleadingly suggests that this is another in the long series of Wilson biographies that began to appear immediately after his death and have continued to be published at regular intervals up to our day. This new Wilson does include a fifty-page biographical précis, along with brief prose sketches describing Wilson’s science and its legacy; those chapters will be of interest chiefly to readers who come fresh to Wilson and the history of North American ornithology.
But it is the pictorial material that makes this new book stand out from all its predecessors. Following a short introduction to the technical aspects of the production and publication of Wilson’s work, Burtt and Davis devote some 195 pages to color reproductions of the extant sketches, drawings, and paintings Wilson produced in preparation for his American Ornithology. Those images, never before gathered into a single volume and many of them previously unpublished, range from simple pencil outlines to fully finished watercolor paintings. Many of the surviving images were cut out to be combined with other figures on a single plate of the finished work, and some still show rusty smears of the iron oxide used in transferring Wilson’s drawings to the copper plate for engraving.
The authors annotate each image with an abbreviated taxonomic history, a brief commentary “on outstanding or unusual artistic and biological aspects of the portrait,” and, in most cases, an excerpt from Wilson’s own account of the species.
Each bird is identified by its present English and scientific names, its “original” binomial, and the names used by Wilson in the American Ornithology. Some errors and imprecisions are introduced here: the current scientific name of the Summer Tanager, for example, is correctly Piranga rubra (Linnaeus), not Tangara œstiva. Even where they are correct, those older synonyms, unaccompanied by any bibliographic details, are of only questionable use to the reader, who would have been much better served had they simply been replaced with a clear reference to the corresponding text and plate in American Ornithology. As it stands, the reader interested in comparing Wilson’s drawings with the finished plates must visit the end notes for a citation to the text of the American Ornithology, then consult that work (for most of us, on line) to determine which plate illustrates a given species—a tangled procedure that few readers are likely to put themselves through.
Names are among the subjects that Burtt and Davis address in their brief commentaries. We learn, for example, that George Robert Gray (identified here only as “Gray”) was honoring Wilson’s wishes when he named the pink and black woodpecker of the West Picus Lewis, and that it was the War of 1812 that kept Wilson from learning of Bechstein’s scant priority in the naming of the Upland Sandpiper. Burtt and Davis also provide tentative identifications of some of Wilson’s “nonce species,” and note those cases, such as that of the plumages of the Orchard Oriole, where Wilson was able to unravel the confusion of his colleagues. The authors likewise comment on the scientific accuracy and artistic attainment of several of the drawings, singling out for particular praise in both spheres Wilson’s Night Hawk, one of the artist’s
best efforts. The pose of the upper bird shows fully the distribution of white on the wings and tail that is important in the bird’s identification. The very effective texture to this fully painted work was achieved by applying opaque watercolors over wash.
At the same time, Burtt and Davis acknowledge the uneven quality of the Wilsonian œuvre that still troubles us today. In his preliminary drawings of turnstones, knots, and Dunlin, for example, Wilson’s treatment of the eyes creates “a stuck-on, glass-eyed appearance.”
The excerpts reproduced here from the text of the American Ornithology include some familiar and memorable passages. Others are less gripping. Why, for instance, are we given Wilson’s description of the Carolina Parakeet’s feet rather than his bizarre disquisition on the toxicity of its gut? Does Wilson really tell us nothing more interesting about the Osprey than its use of mullein stalks and dry spartina in the nest? Surely the entire opening given over to Wilson’s notes on the soft part colors of herons could have been devoted to more informative, or even just more entertaining, material.
As valuable and as enjoyable as these images are, they would have been made much more so by a more logical presentation than they are given here. I find no explanation in Burtt and Davis’s text of the sequence they have imposed on the drawings; the endnotes suggest an order roughly—and only imperfectly—equivalent to that in the American Ornithology. Much leafing and flipping would have been avoided by reproducing the images in taxonomic sequence (whether Wilson’s or today’s), or even in alphabetical order—or, best of all, organized along the five “themes” set forth in Chapter One and then barely mentioned in the rest of the book.
A more consistent layout would also have made using the images and the accompanying texts easier. While the first three species are treated in a clear, straightforward way, with the image on a verso page and texts on the facing recto, the design quickly falls apart, with images, synonymies, commentaries, and Wilsonian excerpts flowing pell-mell across the pages, creating more widows and orphans than a Nova Scotia iceberg. It too often requires considerable attention and not a little page-turning to take full advantage of the image and the supplementary information the authors provide.
Not that the effort isn’t worth it. Wilson presents priceless insights into the work and the process of a man too little known and too little regarded today, and this book is likely to go a long ways towards restoring Wilson to his rightful place among this country’s most important early ornithologists.
If Wilson is too obscure, Audubon is too much a household name. Insurance company calendars, coffee mugs, cell phone covers: It never ends, no doubt greatly to the posthumous satisfaction of the American Woodsman.
The unavoidable ubiquity of all things Audubonian has made it hard for many of us to properly appreciate the man’s accomplishments. Indeed, it’s fashionable now—as it was in the 1830s—in some circles to dismiss Audubon as good enough for hoi polloi, and beneath serious notice for the rest of us.
That’s unfair, but it's understandable, given that most of us “know” Audubon only through the engravings published between 1827 and 1838 as The Birds of America. Striking (and expensive) as they are, those plates are more admirable than they are beautiful, triumphs of printing technology and Audubon’s entrepreneurial spirit, decorative rather than artistic.
Audubon’s Aviary, the wonderful companion volume to the New-York Historical Society’s three-part exhibition under the same title, lets us change our minds about Audubon and his accomplishments as a painter—or at least it changed mine. Presenting all 474 of the watercolors in the Society’s collection, among them all of the surviving studies made for the plates in The Birds of America, Roberta J.M. Olson introduces us to a painter whose sophistication and skill are barely hinted at in the engravings prepared on their basis.
Following a brief biographical sketch of the man she calls “an American icon,” Olson proceeds to a well-written and informative 70-page essay situating Audubon in the historical tradition of ornithological and natural history illustration. Especially eye-opening are Audubon’s early works, many reproduced and discussed for the first time here. His European goldfinch of 1803 (unfortunately included in the exhibition only in facsimile) is the only known painting to survive from the time before the still young artist left France for Pennsylvania, and the pieces prepared in 1805-1806 (some during a stay in Nantes, others on his return to America) show Audubon imitating, and rapidly excelling, such eighteenth-century models as Martinet and Daubenton.
Olson cannily points to Jean-Baptiste Oudry, court painter to Louis XV and illustrator of Audubon’s beloved La Fontaine, as the inspiration for the more violent paintings—but oddly fails to point out what is by far the most eloquent example of Oudrian influence, Audubon's tour de force rendering of a covey of Northern Bobwhites panicked by a Red-shouldered Hawk.
Olson is occasionally swept off her scholarly feet by her subject, and she sometimes understates the contributions of some of Audubons’ contemporaries and colleagues, most notably William MacGillivray. The great Scot is here rightly acknowledged as the “unsung hero” of Audubon’s (and MacGillivray’s!) Ornithological Biography, but his considerable and substantive contributions to that work are characterized only as “help” with “scientific information and grammar.”
As to the enormously complicated relationship between Audubon and Wilson (and Wilson’s posthumous champions), Olson seems willing to reduce it to a competition “in which Audubon takes the prize.” Interestingly, though the author identifies several instances of Audubon's reliance on Rees’s Cyclopaedia, she does not mention that the assistant editor of the American edition of that standard reference was for a time Alexander Wilson.
An informative essay by Marjorie Shelley describing Audubon’s tools and techniques as a watercolorist introduces 114 of the original paintings. Full-page (or larger) reproductions of the highest quality, these images—presented in the order in which the plates engraved from them were issued—reveal some of the subtlety of the originals’ “illusionistic textures” and deep three-dimensionality. Well known as these pictures are in their engraved form, close study of the watercolors can still produce ornithological discoveries: Audubon’s junco, for example, so obviously a Slate-colored Junco in the published colored engraving, is equally clearly a Cassiar Junco avant la lettre in the original painting. Penciled instructions cast light on the relationship between Audubon, his assistants, and his publishers, while the constantly updated taxonomic notes show Audubon eager to be on the cutting edge of classification and naming.
Each of the 114 paintings is annotated on the facing page with the species’ modern name, a cross-reference to the engraved plate in The Birds of America, and a description of the media Aubudon employed. Roberta Olson’s text, which in a few unfortunate cases runs unattractively close to the bottom of the page, typically includes extensive quotations from the Ornithological Biography (sadly without precise citations), notes on similar or related works in the oeuvre of Audubon or his contemporaries, and miscellaneous ornithological commentary, in some cases touching on the bird’s current conservation status. The level of accuracy and insight here is almost unfailingly high, with only rare lapses: the early drawing of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak depicted on page 226 really cannot be considered “the model” for any of the birds in the later painting, for example, and it is happily not true that “ornithologists of today” have no choice but to “cull” Connecticut Warblers for study.
These featured images are followed by thumbnails, nine to the page, of all the remaining paintings in the collections of the New-York Historical Society, rather unhelpfully presented by accession number. The dramatic painting of a Laughing Gull, here figure 498, is misidentified as a Common Black-headed Gull (it was also mislabeled in the exhibition). A complete census of the Audubon paintings precedes a very useful chronology, a clearly laid-out selective bibliography, and an excellent index.
Both of these handsome volumes are highly recommended to historians, historians of art, and anyone interested in where North American ornithology and birding culture came from. Audubon’s Aviary is certain to remain the best paper resource on the artist’s work for decades to come, replaceable only by a publication in a technology yet undreamed of. Wilson, too, gathers priceless visual material nowhere else available between two covers.
Thanks to the quirks of calendars and mortality, we will be celebrating Alexander Wilson again just three years from now, on the 250th anniversary of his birth. With the rich new material provided by these recent publications at hand, perhaps that will be occasion for a biblio-biography of the Father of American Ornithology and his work—and a critical study of his reception by Audubon and all his ornithological sons and daughters.
Wright, R. 2013. Fathers and Sons [a review of Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology, by Edward H. Burtt, Jr., and William E. Davis, Jr.; and of Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for the Birds of America, by Roberta J.M Olson]. Birding 45(4):68.