Audubon’s Birds, Audubon’s Words


Above: The Birds of America, Plate 311, American White Pelican, 1824–38

Running until next Spring at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a show of the most famous bird illustrations of all time, the work of John James Audubon (1785-1851). We might know of him today in our overly-commercial world as the person who illustrated the most expensive book ever: one copy of Birds of America was valued at between 4 and 6 million pounds sterling when it was auctioned in 2010. The other copies are mostly in museums. But I’d like to think of Audubon as the person who inspired and still inspires people to look closely at real nature, to protect it, to see what really goes on, to admire its diversity and beauty, and to encourage people to make creative responses to that exploration. Not everyone can make images as life-like and indeed life-sized as he did but having a go at it is rewarding in itself and allows us to develop a respect for our natural world.

Above: The Birds of America, Plate 171, Barn Owl, 1824–38

Audubon tried to illustrate the birds in their natural habitat, rather than using dead specimens, and he depicted them going about their natural lives as if the viewer was really out there bird-watching. The curator of the show, Ben Weiss, Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture, describes Audubon’s intention to bring you, the viewer, to the birds, not to bring them artificially to you.

This is a chance to see the actual illustrations, many of which are large-scale, and it will be a much more exciting experience than just seeing them reproduced on screen or in print where they lose their scale and impact. It is almost as if these originals are being “bird-watched” like the actual birds!


Above: The Birds of America, Plate 321, Roseate Spoonbill, 1824–38

The exhibition also sets out Audubon’s own words about each specimen and it is noticeable that he addresses us in “dear reader” style, which used to seem a bit old fashioned, but here seems intimate and informative. We feel we are getting the information from the expert.


Above: The Birds of America, Plate 291, Herring Gull, 1824–38

You can read more about Audubon’s gorgeous book at BBC News here.

And more about the exhibition, Audubon’s Birds, Audubon’s Words, at MFA Boston which runs until May 11th 2014, here. Check the slide show and video.

All images courtesy of the MFA Press Office.

At GDP we love birds, watching birds, feeding them and having a go at making images of them (which is not easy as they don’t keep still for you!) and we have often encouraged our young design community to join bird societies (like the US Audubon Society or the UK RSPB) or to do our bird projects. We feel that by making art or design about birds and nature, it instils a love of our environment and encourages new generations to help protect what we have. In this small way we can all continue Audubon’s great work. We are really excited to be going to see the MFA exhibition – can’t wait!

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