On Tuesday morning, at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, having been liberated from the cumbersome boot I had been obliged to wear after breaking my ankle on Capri, I walked – a little unsteadily at first – to the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the top of Brownlow Hill. I intended to look at the exhibition there of photographs by Kurt Tong that forms part of Look 13: The Liverpool International Photography Festival now taking place at various venues across the city.
I was diverted from this objective when I discovered a small exhibition of paintings and drawings made by John James Audubon during the time he stayed in Liverpool in the 1820s. Since it was only last week that I saw his giant Birds of America volume on display at the opening of the new Central Library, I had to take a look. Though small, the exhibition adds a fascinating dimension to the story I mentioned in my post about the support which Audubon gained when he visited Liverpool – backing which ultimately enabled him to raise sufficient funds to publish Birds of America.
Born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French cargo ship captain and Creole mother. He was raised in France before moving to North America to escape the Napoleonic draft. At the age of 41 he sailed to England to find subscribers for his great project: a volume of life-size paintings of every bird species native to America.
Audubon arrived in Liverpool on 21 July 1829. The exhibition opens with the painting above, depicting the view that Audubon would have had from his ship as it approached the city. He wrote in his diary:
It was raining. Yet the outward appearance of the city was agreeable. But no sooner had I entered it than smoke from coal fires was so oppressive that … I could scarcely breathe.
Within a few days Audubon had been welcomed by the Rathbone family as a guest at Greenbank, their elegant residence in south Liverpool. It’s the most beautiful houses in Liverpool and is still there today, part of the University of Liverpool’s estate, on the edge of the park that takes its name. In 1964 the building was converted into a university club for staff and students by the architect and author of essential books on Liverpool’s architecture Quentin Hughes. I recall an intoxicated party one summer’s night on the lawn outside the house when I was a student at the Uni.
Greenbank House is described by Quentin Hughes in his book Liverpool: City of Architecture as ‘a graceful marriage of Georgian and Gothic styles’, with the ‘lace-like cast iron screen on the garden facade being its most charming feature’. Hughes adds (and this surprised me: I thought the influence would have been in the opposite direction) that the style spread to the Southern States of America.
The Rathbone family had first acquired Greenbank House (seen above in a contemporary engraving from William Roscoe of Liverpool by George Chandler, from an informative post about the period at the Sense of Place blog) in 1787 as a holiday house. They would remain in residence there until 1940. Before that, in 1897, Liverpool Corporation had entered into an agreement with William Rathbone to purchase the piece of land, part of which is now Greenbank Park for the sum of £13,000; the agreement required the Corporation to maintain the land as open space or recreation ground for the general public.
Greenbank House was a hotbed of political and social reform at the time of Audubon’s stay. The Rathbones family had made their name both in business and in working for social justice. They had built fortune in 18th century Liverpool in the timber trade, merchant shipping and banking, at the height of the city’s importance as a transatlantic trading centre. Family members were Quakers or Unitarians, acutely conscious of their social responsibilities, and prominent as wealthy philanthropists in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the late 18th and early 19th century, William Rathbone III and his son were opposed to the slave trade, refusing to supply timber to companies that built slave ships. As founding members of the Liverpool Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, they were connected to other Abolitionists, including other prominent business people like Josiah Wedgwood, founder of Wedgwood pottery. Marriage and business interests connected them with other pioneering philanthropists like the Greg’s of Quarry Bank Mill at Styal in Cheshire (where Audubon also stayed during his time in Liverpool).
The Rathbones introduced Audubon to Liverpool society, including influential families such as the Roscoes and the Mellys (the Melly family were wealthy merchants and the ancestors of jazz singer and writer George Melly). According to Richard Rhodes, author of John James Audubon, a 2004 biography, Audubon quickly became the talk of the town and was invited to dinner parties in all of the city’s finest homes. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans had been published six months before his arrival, and had proved enormously popular. Audubon’s outdoor dress, shoulder-length hair and bronzed skin seemed like a vision straight out of the novel, although, according to Rhodes, ‘he was actually a fairly sophisticated urban man’. But Audubon played to the gallery, entertaining his Liverpool hosts with ‘Red Indian’ war cries, owl hoots and tales from the frontier:
He was charming—he played the violin, he danced, he knew all the frontier lore. The English ladies would say, ‘Oh, Mr. Audubon, give us an owl call. Oh, Mr. Audubon, show us how the Indians dance,” Rhodes says. “He wearied quickly of being the cardboard frontiersman, but he knew these people were his potential subscribers.
To encourage interest, an exhibition of his work at the Royal Institution on Colquitt Street was arranged with the help of businessman, writer and abolitionist William Roscoe.
Audubon was soon feeling at home in Liverpool, as he recorded in his Journal:
When I arrived in this city I felt dejected, miserably so; the uncertainty as to my reception, my doubts as to how my work would be received, all conspired to depress me. Now, how different are my sensations! I am well received everywhere, my works praised and admired, and my poor heart is at last relieved from the great anxiety that has for so many years agitated it, for I know now that I have not worked in vain.
On 26 July 1829, Audubon describes one of the social engagements that filled his diary while he was in Liverpool, at which he was invited to present his project to the dinner guests:
This evening I dined with Mr. Rd. Rathbone. I went at half-past six, my heart rather failing me, entered the corridor, my hat was taken, and going upstairs I entered Mr. Rathbone’s drawing-room. … Mr. Edward Roscoe came in immediately,—tall, with a good eye under a well marked brow. Dinner announced, we descended to the room I had entered on my first acquaintance with this charming home, and I was conducted to the place of honour. Mr. Roscoe sat next, Mr. Barclay of London, and Mr. Melly opposite with Consul Maury; the dinner was enlivened with mirth and bon mots, and I found in such good company infinite pleasure. After we left the table Mrs. Rathbone joined us in the parlour, and I had now again to show my drawings. Mr. Roscoe, who had been talking to me about them at dinner, would not give me any hopes, and I felt unusually gloomy as one by one I slipped them from their case; but after looking at a few only, the great man said heartily: ‘Mr. Audubon, I am filled with surprise and admiration’.
According to Moira Lindsay, the curator of the exhibition, the Victoria Gallery is the only place in Britain where you can see original work by Audubon. Birds of America is a printed object, a book of prints of his hand-painted pictures of birds, she explains, whereas the gallery’s collection consists of unique paintings, drawings and watercolours by Audubon. Most of the collection came via the Rathbone family, who were also instrumental in securing the book for the city and in establishing the Royal Institution where Audubon’s work was first displayed – which was Liverpool’s first arts venue before the city had a gallery or museum.
The canvases that Audubon produced in quick succession for his show at the Royal Institution in 1826 are all in the exhibition: American Wild Turkey Cock, Otter Caught in a Trap and Hawk Pouncing on Partridges. The Turkey was painted as a plate for Birds of America, but Audubon painted this second version for the exhibition at the Royal Institution.
Of Hawk Pouncing on Partridges, Audubon wrote:
The different attitudes exhibited by the (partridges) cannot fail to give you a lively idea of the terror and confusion which prevail on such occasions.
While at Greenbank, Audubon also produced a rare self-portrait in pencil (dated September 1826, and inscribed: ‘at Green Bank. Almost happy!!’) and a watercolour entitled A Robin Perched on a Mossy Stone, painted especially for Hannah Mary Rathbone, of whom he had grown especially fond. Audubon recorded in his journal that:
after breakfast Miss Hannah opened the window and her favourite robin hopped about the carpet, quite at home.
The work is inscribed on the reverse with a poem to Hannah in which Audubon describes his enjoyment living in the wild with nature:
There is a joy, that oft my heart has known,
The secret haunts of nature to explore,
To hold communion with myself alone,
In wilds, which man has never trod before,
And well I love, at solitary night,
To hear the wailing Heron’s plaintive cry,
My only lamp, the fireflys’ glowing light;
My only canopy the fretted sky.
A further glimpse of these feelings comes in his journal entry for August 1st:
I arose to listen to the voice of an English Blackbird just as the day broke. It was a little after three, I dressed; and as silently as in my power moved downstairs carrying my boots in my hand, gently opened the door, and was off to the fields and meadows. I walked a good deal, went to the seashore, saw a Hare, and returned to breakfast, after which and many invitations to make my kind hosts frequent visits, I was driven back to town, and went immediately to the Institution.
(It’s worth noting, nevertheless, that all the birds he painted for Birds of America were shot, either by Audubon himself, or by others from whom he purchased specimens.)
No doubt Hannah appreciated her robin; her mother, though grew to have an intense dislike of another of the paintings he gave to the household. Otter Caught in a Trap was painted for Mrs Rathbone, and described by Audubon as an ‘amiable otter’. But she later wrote that they kept it until ‘she could no longer stand the sight of it’.
Another painting on display at the Victoria Gallery is Yellow or Grey Wagtails Chasing a Crane Fly, painted in 1826, with an accompanying poem, at Greenbank. This work, too, was presented to Mrs. Rathbone.
Audubon toured Edinburgh, London, and Paris with his portfolio and single-handedly raised the money necessary to finance his project. Europe’s elite were impressed by the originality of his art, as his biographer Richard Rhodes explains:
People were starved for images in those days. Audubon’s work is full of energy, life, love, violence, and colour. To walk into a hall filled with his paintings would have been like seeing an IMAX movie today.
Audubon’s watercolours were turned into prints by Robert Havell Sr., London’s pre-eminent engraver. Havell and his assistants traced every detail of Audubon’s original paintings and transferred the images to copper plates. Completed prints were circulated among fifty or sixty watercolourists, primarily young women, who were responsible for filling in a single colour each. A master colourist made final changes, and therefore every print is different. Today, very few intact copies of Birds of America survive, since so many have been broken so that prints can be sold individually.
When the copy of Birds of America now on display in Liverpool’s Central Library is opened, it’s the size of a dining table. Every one of the 400 illustrations is hand-tinted and vivid. The folio had a narrow escape in the Second World War when the library was partly destroyed by German bombers. Fortunately, it was rescued from the flames and the floods caused by firemen fighting the blaze. Together with the Victoria Gallery’s collection of works from Greenbank House, donated by the Rathbone family, Liverpool has a collection of Audubon’s work on public display that rivals those in the United States.
There’s a footnote to the story of Greenbank House and art. In the 1970s, several Liverpool artists, inspired by American photorealist painting, produced arresting realist paintings in the same style. John Baum and Maurice Cockrill – both lecturing at the Art school at the time – each adopted the style and produced paintings depicting Liverpool buildings.
Baum’s painting of Greenbank House (also in the Victoria Gallery collection) is the epitome of the style. He also memorably painted poet Roger McGough’s residence Windermere House that overlooked Princes Park in 1972. The painting seems to imagine a Liverpool redolent of West Coast America, with clean lines, verdant grass and perfect blue skies.
- It’s Liverpool, in 1820: excellent account of Liverpool at the time of Audubon’s visits, by fellow Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes (A Sense of Place)
All is quiet on New Year’s Day: another post from A Sense of Place in which Ronnie pays a visit to Greenbank House
- Drawn From Nature: Audubon’s Artistic Legacy: article from Humanities magazine, 2007