Catch two fantastic exhibitions at Compton Verney
By Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent for Timeless Travels
© Quentin Blake 1998
Few artists or illustrators alive can claim to have quite the same relationship with the British public, or its children certainly, as Sir Quentin Blake (born 1932) whose works have been a key part of childhood reading for the past 60 years. And few artists have such a strong claim to fame as a talented and acutely observant illustrator of birdlife as the American artist John James Audubon (1785–1851).
This summer, visitors to Compton Verney, Warwickshire have the double pleasure of seeing works from both artists in two distinct exhibitions - and I have to say, going there to see them in the spacious exhibition galleries within the Grade I-listed Georgian mansion amidst its wildflower-filled and wooded Lancelot 'Capability' Brown parkland was an absolute treat!
Non-stop smiling seemed the order of the day through all four or so rooms of the Quentin Blake: Birds, Beasts & Explorers exhibition – for me as much as the party of schoolchildren who were there, pointing at, and darting excitedly between drawings of the Heron and the Crane, the Monster Readers, Mr Filkins in the Desert, and Blake’s comically anthropomorphic birds!
Across at the beautiful display of 46 plates from Birds of America, there the order of the day was mostly admiration for Audubon’s artistry and respect for his powers of observation. But also, deeper reflection, especially upon reading the captions. These effectively combine Audubon’s own words on his observations of a species with modern, measured overviews.
Detail from a print depicting Carolina parakeets from Birds of America, by John James Audubon. Image © National Museums Scotland
When it was first published as a subscription series between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America was instantly recognised as a landmark work of ornithological illustration. Today, it is one of the world’s most famous and valuable, besides coveted rare books – as well as, at almost one-metre high, one of the largest. Only 120 complete copies are known to exist and they are rarely displayed. The framed plates exhibited, all coming from one set, although incomplete, and each measuring almost a metre high, come from the National Museums Scotland Library collection. The show at Compton Verney is the first stop on a UK tour after Edinburgh in 2022.
Not only was the scale of Audubon’s work epic, but also his ambition. He hoped to paint every bird species in North America. The work took him almost 12 years to complete and almost bankrupted him in the process. A set contains 435 hand-coloured life-sized prints. (The Audubon Society’s website today states that more than 800 bird species occur in the United States.)
Audubon’s style was radical. Unlike the birds portrayed by his predecessors and contemporaries that might look stiff and oddly immobile, his were not only life-sized but also animated as if in their native habitats. Some larger species, however, ended up in rather contorted postures in order to fit the page, for example, the beautifully drawn Golden Eagle’s flight position is aerodynamically impossible!
The exhibition looks at the legend of the man who over the years has gained almost mythical status – Audubon liked to present himself as the quintessential buckskin-clad American woodsman, as well as adventurer and naturalist, including on his visits to Scotland and London - but does not shy away from more complex, problematic realities.
Print depicting barn owls from Birds of America, by John James Audubon. Image © National Museums Scotland
Audubon’s story is full of contradiction and controversy. He was a prolific hunter, who killed many birds in order to make his drawings; he profited from the ownership of enslaved people and showed disdain towards the abolitionist movement - aspects which have been overlooked until recently; and his scientific standing is also disputed, with Audubon today accused of completely fabricating several species and misidentifying others.
Identifying bird species in the wild can be hard, and sometimes he named a bird twice or assumed a juvenile was a separate species (easily done). And then, there’s the example of his famous “Bird of Washington”, a species of large eagle he named after the first president of the United States, that he claimed to have seen several times in the wild: it is now thought to be a complete invention. Perhaps it was a juvenile bald eagle, some suggest, but the bird’s true identity continues to perplex.
I was happy to see that the exhibition ends by bringing the story up to date, looking at the conservation status of some of the species featured in Birds of America, and with a video giving a brief overview of conservation concerns as a whole.
From Quentin Blake’s inimitable style and creative imagination to the beautiful yet more challenging exhibition of Audubon’s iconic work, this is a terrific pairing of art exhibitions.
What’s more, you can finish with a walk beside the lake or in the grounds where there’s plenty of opportunity to engage with British birdlife, for I’m told that Compton Verney is home to 110 varieties of resident and visiting birds, including Great Crested Grebes, house martins, bullfinches, kingfishers, barn and tawny owls, ducks, swans and many more…
Birds of America
& Quentin Blake Birds, Beasts & Explorers,
Showing until: 1 October 2023
See: www.comptonverney.org.uk for more information