Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A bird in the hand, at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Was it a wet, wintry day in 1828 when Isabella, Lady Hertford reached for her scissors and began cutting out some colourful pictures with which to liven up her blue wallpaper?  That wallpaper  had been imported from China, a gift from George the Prince of Wales many years before, and can still be seen in situ, duly embellished with exotic birds pasted amongst its flowering branches, at Temple Newsam House, near Leeds.


Embellished 18th century Chinese wallpaper in the Blue Drawing Room
© Temple Newsam House, Leeds

Far greater 'vandalism' was done to the newly published portfolio Lady Hertford cut all those exotic hand-coloured pictures from :  the first part of  John James Audubon's The Birds of America, with its 435 astonishing life-size images,  now regarded as one of the finest natural history publications held in any great library collection.

Plate from The Birds of America, from Original Drawings, made during a Residence of  Twenty-five Years in the United States  John James Audubon  (for images see www.audubon.org) 

Creating this labour of love over twenty-five years, Audubon was supported during his travels by his wife Lucy working as a governess.  "Every moment I had to spare I drew birds for my ornithology in which my Lucy and myself alone have faith.  My best friends solemnly regarded me as a madman, and my wife and family alone gave me encouragement,  My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant."


Roseate Spoonbill








"Light as a sylph, the Arctic Tern dances through the air above and around you."  J. J. Audubon

















Visitors to Cambridge this December can find out more about John Audubon, his years of perseverance  (at one stage his paintings were all eaten by rats)  and his remarkable creation,  at the Fitzwilliam Museum.    On selected dates the Founder's Library, named after Richard, the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, will be open to the general public in small groups at lunchtimes.


The mantel clock in the Founder's Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum

 The Library curators will introduce you to Audubon's giant masterpiece and reveal the fascinating stories about this rare hand-coloured volume and other historic printed books from the collection across the centuries.  Prepare to be amazed!*


Carolina Parrot or Parakeet

Great Blue Heron

* Or see the marvellous illuminated manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam exhibition "Colour" (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).

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