Audubon's Legacy: Where It All Began
On a farm in rural Pennsylvania, John James Audubon first glimpsed the curious birds of the New World that would become his lifelong passion. Now the Audubon Center at Mill Grove shares his home and his artistry with the conservation movement he continues to inspire.
In these Pennsylvania woodlands, another compulsion took hold. Without much formal training (despite the claim to have studied under the French court artist Jacques-Louis David), Audubon became obsessed with drawing birds--not simply depicting them in the wooden profiles of his time but expressing their nature in all their color and vitality. His early results produced only frustration. "I made some pretty fair signboards for poulterers," he said afterward.
At Mill Grove he first tried suspending freshly shot birds with pieces of string to create the impression of life. A lamentable failure. Then he began to skewer the birds with sharp, pliable wires, fastening the ends to a board in the background, and twisting and bending them until he produced dynamic poses. Audubon painted all his birds life-size, and manipulating the forms (as illustrated by his portraits of the trumpeter swan or the American flamingo) enabled him to fit them onto his drawing paper. On the board he plotted a grid to help him accurately fix the perspective and proportions he wanted. Voila! By combining this bit of artifice with the image of the living, active bird imprinted on his mind from intense observation in nature, Audubon created--chiefly in watercolors but also in pencil, oil, crayon, and pastel--the paintings that influenced the way Americans have viewed birds up through our own time.
It was at Mill Grove, as well, that Audubon began the study of living birds he made use of in the Letterpress, or Ornithological Biography, that was to accompany the publication of his Birds of America. "Nature must be seen first alive, and well studied before attempts are made at representing it," he wrote to a friend years later.
Curious whether the individual eastern phoebes (he called them "pewees") around a cave above Perkiomen Creek returned each year, he tied lengths of silver thread around the legs of their nestlings. Two phoebes returned to the area the following spring with the threads still attached, proving Audubon's hunch. These experiments pioneered the science of bird banding in North America, which has become an important tool in modern studies of avian ecology and distribution.
More vital to Audubon's personal success was his introduction to the Bakewells, who lived in a porticoed mansion at Fatland Ford, only half a mile from Mill Grove. It was love at first sight between the glamorous young Frenchman and the Bakewells' eldest daughter, Lucy. Soon inseparable, they made frequent visits together to the "pewee" caves, a cause of some anxiety for Lucy's father. In the course of time their attachment prevailed, and Audubon wed his Lucy in 1808. The newlyweds set out in a stagecoach over the Allegheny Mountains to meet their future--a torrent of dangerous experiences, of hardships and heartaches, of long separations and unlikely triumphs, that became the stuff of innumerable biographies.
Today Mill Grove is a national historic landmark that consists of 175 acres, 67 of them leased to Audubon by the county. The relatively good condition of Mill Grove's remaining buildings, their precious contents, and green surroundings bespeak nearly 250 years of devoted stewardship.
In preparation for Audubon's venture into the business world west of the Alleghenies (eventually to prove unsuccessful), Mill Grove was sold. The splendid old property, under indifferent ownership, might have disappeared from history. But in 1813 it was purchased by Samuel Wetherill, a Philadelphia businessman who needed large quantities of lead for the manufacture of paint. Although his family prospered, the mine was never profitable and was shut down in 1858. The Wetherills continued to care for Mill Grove until 1951, when the commissioners of Montgomery County acquired it.
The county assembled a staff that tended the grounds, encouraged public visits, and gave tours to schoolchildren, but much of the support came from private sources. In the mid-1980s Jean and Terry Holt formed the Friends of Mill Grove and raised a quarter-million dollars to protect 40 acres adjoining the property as a permanent buffer. Meanwhile, a swelling number of Audubon's admirers built Mill Grove's art collection; over time it has acquired the almost priceless editions of the famed painter's greatest works, including volumes of the Imperial Edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published during the 1840s, and The Double Elephant Folio of The Birds of America, in four volumes, which contains the 435 hand-colored prints of his paintings engraved from 1827 to 1838.
"Audubon spent years in England, supervising the publication of about 200 sets of the Birds," says Gehret. "Subscribers paid roughly $1,000 for a set, a tremendous sum in the 1820s and '30s. Many sets are unaccounted for, destroyed by fire and wars, or have been broken up to sell the plates individually. Only about 90 complete sets are still in existence. If one like ours goes on sale today," he says, "it would bring $10 million to $12 million."
Mrs. Charles T. Church of New York bequeathed her set of the Birds to Mill Grove in 1961. An anonymous party donated the study skin of a passenger pigeon shot by Audubon in 1843. In the early 1960s New York businessman Edward Vair contributed substantially to a fund to buy other Audubon treasures as they appeared on the market.