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John James Audubon, American Painter of birds in Liverpool
Andrew Pearce 15 September 2006
John James Audubon arrived in Liverpool in 1826 from the United States to seek support for the publication of his "Birds of North America". This he eventually 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.
Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French naval captain and a chambermaid, born on the West Indies island of St Dominic. 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. 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. He landed in Liverpool. His journal provides us with a most informative account of his success and of life in Liverpool at the time.
He was immediately befriended by Richard Rathbone who took him to the Town Hall and the Exchange to show him the sights 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.
Some of the buildings associated with Audubon have survived although most have been swept away by Victorian redevelopment. Richard Rathbone's offices were situated by the Salthouse Dock but the Town Hall today is much as Audubon knew it. There are some survivors of Georgian office buildings, notably no 46 and nos 52-54 Castle Street, easily distinguishable from their Victorian interlopers by the lower line of their roofs. In Brunswick Street you can see an office block that has survived from Audubon's time, originally built by John Foster Senior in 1800 for the bank Arthur Heywood, Sons and Co., and later absorbed into Barclays Bank, although the premises are still called the Heywood Building. The Royal Institution in Colquitt Street survives practically intact and Greenbank has been incorporated into the Greenbank site of the Liverpool University halls of residence in Mossley Hill.
There is a fascinating echo of a building that Audubon knew. Audubon, though a Quaker, worshipped at the Chapel of the Blind School in Hotham Streeet, off London Road. When the site was taken over by Lime Street station it was moved bodily to Hope Street opposite the Philharmonic Hall. When it was demolished, the architect reflected the classical style of the old building in the external decoration for the School for the Blind which replaced it.
Bibliography: Ford, Alice 1826 Journal of John James (Audubon Abbeville Press 1987); Hart-Davies, Duff Audubon's Elephant (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003) Sharples, Joseph Pevsner Architectural Guides: Liverpool (Yale University Press 2004).