Birds of America, which has just fetched a record price, is a masterpiece by the sexiest naturalist ever, says our art critic and secret twitcher
My name is Waldemar Januszczak. And I am a twitcher. There, I’ve admitted it. Do I feel shame? No. Do I feel brave? Yes. Few things I could admit to in this public forum could mark me down more swiftly or more clearly as a creepy, nutty, scary loner than to confess here and now that I watch birds. Indeed, if the police arrested me tomorrow in a lay-by near High Wycombe with my binoculars in one hand and a selection of underwear stolen from the granny section of Bhs in the other, you would probably think more highly of me than you do now.
To confess to twitching days after a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America was sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking £7,321,250 — with the auctioneer’s gubbins thrown in, and added taxes — takes the cojones of Gymnogyps californianus, or the Californian condor. The mightiest bird in America, a magnificent raptor with a 10ft wingspan, appears on a lofty branch staring dolefully down onto its oh-sothreatened future in plate one of Audubon’s avian masterpiece. Did you know there are only 192 Californian condors left in the wild today? Of course you didn’t. Because as far as you are concerned, birds are just … birds.
For some extraordinary reason, there was lots of surprise displayed in many quarters last week at the price fetched by the Audubon. “Why on earth would anyone wish to pay £7.3m for a bird book?” was the general tone of the doubts. It wasn’t even unique. There were scores of copies of it out there, all more or less identical. In all, 200 copies of Birds of America were printed in 1839. Almost all have survived.
I, too, was surprised by the price reached on Tuesday. Shocked, actually. Not by how high it went — but how low it stayed. Just think, I thought, if I sold every single thing I possess, worked weekends and bank holidays till the end of my life, raided my children’s piggy banks and stole from all the accounts of every member of my family, then killed my wife and children for the insurance, I might have been able to get together enough to put down a deposit, and bid for it myself. Why didn’t I think of that before?
The only truly preposterous aspect of Tuesday’s sale was the lack of recognition shown by some observers of the sheer, raw, undilutable importance of Audubon’s masterpiece. Calling it “a bird book” is like describing the Taj Mahal as “a white building”. Or the Sistine ceiling as “a painted roof”.
We are not talking “bird book” here. We are talking treasure trove of art presented in a book-like form; or 700 or so superb capturings of the avian spirit of America assembled in four volumes; or the most important illustrated book ever; or the best book ever. The last description is the one I would go for.
Everything about Audubon’s Birds of America is extra-exciting, and immensely covetable. For a start, there’s the size of the thing. The dimensions of the copy sold at Sotheby’s are not given as “double elephant” for nothing. It is a true literary whopper, measuring 3ft 2in by 2ft 1in. When Audubon released Birds to his subscribers, the crates in which the book was delivered needed to have wheels attached because nobody could lift them.
The 435 plates depict every American bird known at the time, each individual portrait a masterpiece of avian imagining, all hand-coloured by the finest craftsmen available in Victorian England, 50 of them, working in a line with the best colours available. No expense whatsoever was spared in the making of Audubon’s supreme display. If you think that £7.3m is a princely sum to spend on a book today, imagine how Audubon himself must have felt about having to find the $115,640 it cost to have the book printed. In today’s money, that equates to more than £1.6m. Just to have it printed.
This was on top of the two decades or so it took him to produce the illustrations in the first place — crisscrossing America from habitat to habitat, risking every danger that the untamed Wild West could throw at him, just to get a sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker or a worm-eating swamp warbler. Or the Carolina parakeet, which is now extinct. Or the wild turkey that Benjamin Franklin wanted to become the symbol of America. Or the bald eagle that got the job in the end. Every one needed to be tracked down and illustrated. So all hail Audubon, the first and greatest twitcher! We lesser twitchers of the world prostrate ourselves at your buckskin moccasins.
The copy of Birds of America sold at Sotheby’s happened also to be a special one. Not only was it in immaculate condition — with every one of the life-size birds illustrated in the book in a pristine state — but it also had a sexy provenance. It came from the library at Easton Neston, possibly the most enticing stately home in Britain.
Easton Neston is the only fully extant country house designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, an architectural genius so mysterious and unknowable that his posthumous pull persuaded the Peter Ackroyds of this world to write crime novels about him. The other day I opened From Hell, a particularly famous graphic novel by the master of the genre, Alan Moore, and there on almost every page was the architecture of Hawksmoor. Spooky!
I digress to note all this because the tangible, countable, realistic reasons for treasuring Birds of America are only a small wing-feather of the book’s story. There are other, less tangible but absurdly powerful reasons why the great tome holds the special place that it does. They can be summed up in two plangent words: Audubon and birds.
When it comes to charisma and sexiness, no naturalist who ever stalked this earth can hold a candle to John James Audubon. Compare him with, say, our own Darwin, and you are comparing Johnny Depp with Father Christmas. There’s a portrait of Audubon that hangs in the White House, painted by John Syme in 1826, that shows us immediately what we are dealing with here: long, greasy, Kings of Leon hair; an outdoor outfit hacked casually out of a couple of grizzlies; a howitzer cradled in his arms; a fierce stare that says: “Arctic three-toed woodpecker, are you looking at me?” This is the naturalist as warrior of the wilds. I am not saying for one instant that Audubon’s brusque approach to gathering his specimens — careering through the American wilds and shooting them — was in any way commendable, but as an embodiment of the American can-do spirit he takes some beating.
The second mythic attraction working on us here is the mysterious appeal of birds. At heart, the thing about Audubon was that he was a complete bird nut. From his earliest days growing up in Haiti, he felt the irresistible avian pull and responded to it. If you look through any of the facsimile editions of his big, sensuous illustrations in Birds of America — none of us is now likely to get near an original — you simply cannot miss his excitement at what he is encountering. The amazing colours. The dramatic situations. The remarkable sights.
I know that feeling. I, too, have recognised from an early age that birds are flying works of art. Arriving here from somewhere else, they import with them a delicate sense of distant freedom and an exotic array of outdoor effects. Britain can appear grey and dull much of the time, but never when a chaffinch hops across it. Like all the best pleasures, the pleasure of birds is addictive. That’s why some of this newspaper’s toughest penslingers are big, soft, bird-hugging twitchers in their down time. AA Gill for one; Lynn Barber for another.
I may not have swum in full buckskin across the alligator-infested swamps of Tennessee to view a Florida cormorant but I did once spend three weeks in a tent on the Scilly Isles hoping to catch sight of a wryneck, that rare British woodpecker which does not bang on trees and which can turn its neck 180 degrees. I still remember every detail of the one that finally appeared, and made everything worth it.