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Walking with Birds: The Art of Audubon and MacGillivray

Who made Birds of America?

John James Audubon (1785–1851) – Creator

John James Audubon had the idea for Birds of America and travelled the country painting the birds that would feature in it. He is rightly remembered as its creator, but many other people played key roles in bringing the book to life.

William MacGillivray (1796–1852) – Scientific writer

The Scottish ornithologist and friend of Audubon wrote and edited much of the Ornithological Biography – the scientific text that Audubon compiled to accompany the book of illustrations.

Joseph Mason (1808-1842) – Artist

Apprentice and assistant to Audubon, Mason helped him to shoot specimens and painted the flowers and surroundings of at least 50 of Audubon’s illustrations. Mason expected to receive credit for his work but never did, leading him to sever his friendship with Audubon. He became an art tutor and portrait painter in Cincinnati.

George Lehman (c. 1800–1870) – Artist

Lehman was a Swiss-born landscape artist who accompanied Audubon on his trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in 1820. In 1829 Audubon hired him to complete the backgrounds to some of his works. Just under 40 backgrounds are attributed to him.

Maria Martin, watercolour painter

Maria Martin (1796-1863)

Maria Martin (1796-1863) – Artist

Martin painted the background plants and animals for around thirty-five plates in Birds of America. A friend of Audubon’s through her husband, the Reverend Bachman, she was the only female assistant that he employed. Though Audubon acknowledged her contribution, she received no payment for her work. Martin was a skilled scientific illustrator and also painted snakes for John Edwards Holbrook’s book, North American Herpetology.

William H. Lizars (1788–1859) – Printer

An Edinburgh painter and engraver, Lizars was originally hired by Audubon to print Birds of America. However, work was halted when Lizars’ colourists went on strike, and Audubon moved the production to London after the first ten plates were completed.

Portrait of Robert Havell, Junior, by his eldest daughter Amelia Jane Havell, at Sing Sing (Ossining), New York, 1845.

Portrait of Robert Havell, Junior, by his eldest daughter Amelia Jane Havell, at Sing Sing (Ossining), New York, 1845. The Print-Collector's Quarterly, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 1916

Robert Havell Junior and Senior (1793 – 18178; 1769 – 1832) – Printers

Havell Junior managed most of the printing of Birds of America, a complex process due to its size and colour. He was credited on each individual plate in the book. Havell Senior was owner of the family printing business based in London.

Victor and John Audubon (1809-1860; 1812-1862) – Artists and assistants

Victor, the eldest of Audubon’s sons, was a talented landscape painter and exhibited and sold his paintings in America. He assisted his father in the production of at least 20 of the plates but primarily acted as business secretary and agent, handling the lists of subscriptions for Birds of America. John Audubon contributed to around 45 of the background images and is also credited with some of the actual bird images.

Lucy Audubon, wife of John James Audubon

Image of Lucy Audubon from John James Audubon's journals

Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1785-1851)

Lucy Audubon did the crucial work of staying at home and looking after their household and children, enabling Audubon to travel and paint birds. She is also believed to have copied out the entire manuscript of the Ornithological Biography to assist in securing its copyright in America.

Unacknowledged contributors

As the Audubon Society has emphasised since this exhibition was first curated, people of colour played a part in the creation of Birds of America. Audubon relied on assistance from Native American and African Americans local to the areas where he studied and painted birds. He also, despite never viewing them as his equals, incorporated their knowledge into his writing, including the Ornithological Biography.