Audubon's Legacy: Where It All Began
This is where it all began: Here at Mill Grove in eastern Pennsylvania, with its big farmhouse built of rough-cut local fieldstone, enveloped now in a century's growth of ivy and set discreetly into a slope on the eastern shore of Perkiomen Creek, just above its entry into the Schuylkill River. Here a young John James Audubon settled upon his arrival from France in 1803 to embark on one of the most flamboyant and productive lifelong adventures in American history.
"Its fine woodlands, its extensive acres, its fields crowned with evergreen offered many subjects to my pencil," the supreme painter of America's birds was to write years later. "It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me."
Last year, exactly 200 years after the prodigy's arrival, the National Audubon Society signed an agreement with Pennsylvania's Montgomery County to establish an Audubon center at Mill Grove. Plans for the property include developing an art gallery to house and protect Mill Grove's collection of John James Audubon's prints—the most valuable wildlife art in the world—and expanding the environmental education programs the county has offered there for many years.
"We don't want this to be simply a traditional art museum," says Jean Bochnowski, a former executive vice-president of Zoo New England and now director of the Audubon Center at Mill Grove. "We want it to be a place where we can use Audubon's art to tell the stories of the species and habitats that they represent in a landscape which is where Audubon first explored America and got to know its wildlife."
Located about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Mill Grove is among America's genuine shrines. Although its house and huge barn are somewhat the worse for wear since Audubon's time, many seminal American landmarks, including Thoreau's Walden Pond, haven't aged as gracefully. Suburban traffic reaches near-gridlock proportions beyond Mill Grove's main entrance, but within its boundaries tranquillity reigns.
In the early 19th century, when the youthful artist tirelessly "studied" the local birds with the aid of a flintlock gun, the farmyard was astir with horses and cattle, and the air resounded with the clamor of a working lead mine and the water-powered mill for which the property was named. Now the farm animals and mill are long gone. The site of the abandoned mine is a grassy hollow among lush trees and shrubs. Descendants of the fallen house wrens, chimney swifts, and eastern phoebes provide much of the song and stir. No ghosts walk here, and none are necessary. Mill Grove exudes to the visitors of today its own rich and remarkable history.
The neat dormers and solid chimneys of the house at Mill Grove stamp it as a practical and respectable farmhouse. Built in 1762, with a new wing added a few years later, it served as a tavern for a time and never gained the more ostentatious proportions of some neighboring homes. That was perfectly acceptable to Jean Audubon, captain of a French cargo vessel and a trader in rum, sugar, and slaves on his rounds from France to various Caribbean and U.S. ports. He bought the property as an investment in 1789. The senior Audubon also owned land in what is now Haiti. There he fathered two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, by two different women of French descent. The boy became known later as John James Audubon.
"Slave revolts threatened the planters in Haiti, and Jean Audubon wanted to take his children to France and raise them as French citizens," says Alan Gehret. A walking encyclopedia of Auduboniana who grew up near Mill Grove, he has worked there for 19 years and currently serves as museum coordinator. "We don't know for sure, but it's possible that four-year-old John James was aboard his father's ship when he stopped in Philadelphia and bought Mill Grove."
The aging sailor arranged for a tenant farmer and his wife to care for the property. In 1803, worried his son would be drafted into Napoleon's army, he slipped the 18-year-old out of France and sent him to Mill Grove. John James, already entranced by birds and by the prospect of exploring America's wilderness, found himself in what he must have thought of as an opulent aviary, a glitter of the strange and beautiful birds of a new world.
He was then just coming into manhood. Romantic and narcissistic, he described himself later as "quite a handsome figure," with an "aquiline nose and a fine set of teeth" and hair that fell in luxuriant ringlets to his shoulders. He was also a gifted liar and made up elaborate stories. He reported that George Washington had visited old Jean Audubon at Mill Grove during the general's winter at nearby Valley Forge, and claimed a beautiful and wealthy mother in New Orleans to disguise his bastardy. But few men have ever matched their deeds so closely to their bull. Contemporaries marveled at Audubon's exceptional abilities as a marksman, fencer, dancer, musician, horseman, and charmer of women.
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. Voilà! 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.
Perhaps the largest and most dramatic of the center's paintings, "The Eagle and the Lamb," has had a precarious existence. Audubon failed to sell it in England and brought it back with him to the United States. After his death, Lucy gave it to George Bird Grinnell, a former student of hers and the founder of the first Audubon society. National Audubon sold the painting at auction in 1953 to Sarah Moyer, a member of the Norristown (Pennsylvania) Audubon Club. Immediately the painting was put on loan to hang at Mill Grove. In 1985, to commemorate the 200th birthday of John James, the members of the Norristown club gave it to Mill Grove permanently.
A visitor to the Audubon Center at Mill Grove will now see on exhibit one volume of Audubon's Birds and one of hisQuadrupeds, while the other volumes remain in Philadelphia, where they're being restored. Also at Mill Grove are six prints, recently purchased from an auction house, and seven portraits, which the staff calls "Audubon's dinosaur species"—portraits of birds he saw that are now extinct, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Eskimo curlew. A new exhibit represents Audubon's bedroom, arranged with period furniture and festooned with bird skins, reproductions of unfinished drawings, and other bric-a-brac.
The center's staff grapples with providing much-needed renovations—just a day after The Birds of America was removed from the house, a leak dripped water on the box it had been stored in—and one plan envisions the enormous three-storied barn eventually becoming part of a climate-controlled art gallery.
Strengthening ties to the prosperous suburban community is also a priority as the Audubon Center at Mill Grove continues to grow. Director Bochnowski predicts visitation will more than double, from 20,000 people annually to upwards of 50,000. Planning Mill Grove's future is the responsibility of the site's stewardship board and Pennsylvania Audubon's board of directors, assisted by museum professionals, community leaders, and members of the nearby Valley Forge Audubon Society, which already holds chapter board meetings at the center. "The new connection at Mill Grove gives the entire Audubon movement a presence in this region," says chapter president Ralf Graves.
Unquenchable wanderlust characterized John James Audubon's life. No single place could hold him, yet at Mill Grove his memory continues to inspire those who share his curiosity and passion for nature. Here we may still catch glimpses of the artist whose genius flowered among its durable buildings and in its bird-haunted woodlands.
For information on the Audubon Center at Mill Grove, call 610-666-5593.
This story originally ran as "Where It All Began" in the November-December 2004 issue.