In a recent issue of BirdWatching magazine, we described 19 new books about birds that belong in your library. At the top of our list was Audubon’s Birds of America: The National Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio.
This is a new printing, not a new edition — Abbeville Press first published it in 1981 and then updated its common and scientific names in 1990 — but it is wonderful.
Audubon’s Birds of America: The National Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio, edited by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1990, 694 pages, $185 cloth, slipcase. An iPad edition is in the works.
The newly printed Baby Elephant Folio presents all 435 of Audubon’s hand-colored engravings in exquisite reproductions derived from the original plates of the National Audubon Society’s archival copy of the rare Double Elephant Folio. They, without doubt, are the stars of this show, yet as is always the case in memorable theatrical productions, they shine because of the actors who share the stage. In this case, the supporting cast consists of two luminaries: Roger Tory Peterson, the creator of the modern field guide, and his wife, the scientist Virginia Marie Peterson.
Not only did the Petersons edit the volume — correcting Audubon’s innocent identification errors, reorganizing the plates to conform, roughly, with the AOU Checklist of North American Birds, and adding colorful captions throughout (these amount to an ongoing, lively, and interesting dialogue with Audubon’s own Ornithological Biography) — but they also contributed a truly fascinating 35-page introduction.
In it they place Audubon in the context of the history of North American ornithological art, and reproduce, in full color, a wide sampling of the work of notable predecessors and disciples. These range from Mark Catesby and Alexander Wilson, who preceded Audubon, to the growing number of bird portraitists who came on the scene since.
The list of artists reads like a who’s-who of bird art: Francis Lee Jacques; George Sutton; Don Eckelberry; Guy Coheleach; Robert Bateman, “one of the most inventive and successful of the new breed of wildlife painters”; Barry Kent MacKay, whose work was celebrated as part of this year’s International Migratory Bird Day; Charley Harper (his designs, Peterson writes, are “more than clever arrangements; they invariably capture the uniqueness of the bird and make a statement about its biology or way of life”); Owen Gromme, “the elder statesman among waterfowl painters”; and many, many others — including himself.
Peterson included four of his own works: Quail (1973), from his Field Guide to Mexican Birds; Great Horned Owl (1974), which he says he “handled in the detailed Audubonesque manner”; and Snowy Owl (1976) and Puffins (1979), which are described as “more painterly in approach.” Is it misguided to like a book about Audubon because of its insights into Peterson? I don’t think so.
“Of those who painted birds prior to 1930,” Peterson concludes, “we can be certain of only two — Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes — whose work will be remembered centuries hence. As for the hundreds who have painted birds since 1930, most of them still living and improving their skills, it is too early to assess their durability (or possible immortality) in the evolution of bird art.”
A reviewer for the New York Times called the Baby Elephant Folio a “brilliant achievement,” and justly so, but warned that the Abbeville edition is not a volume one would take to bed. “It measures 15 by 12 by 3 inches and weighs over 13 pounds. If one were thinking of it as a gift for a friend, a thoughtful and endearing touch would be to include a book stand with it.”
You’ve been warned. — Chuck Hagner, Editor
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