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John James Audubon

Painter of Birds

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 size so that all the 435 species of birds could be depicted life size. One of the most prized possessions of the Hornby Library in Liverpool Central Library 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 and 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 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 (later 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.