Apparently, I am the last to know that John James Audubon was a bird murderer.
When I expressed righteous indignation that Audubon, the supposed human embodiment of bird love — what would bird love be, orinthophilia? — brought down eagles with a gun and wired them to perches, most people responded with a shrug. Obviously Audubon was a bird murderer. Doesn’t his bird frenzy just reek of avian homicide? How else would he paint his birds with such stunning accuracy? Did I really think that majestic white gyrfalcons would hold this pose for him, only asking now and then for a fish break?*
Even if it is common knowledge, I remain appalled. I learned about Audubon’s bloody tendencies while reading up on my latest Victorian boyfriend, Edward Lear.
Sure, he’s not much of a looker. Yes, he was possibly a homosexual. But he’s my latest Victorian boyfriend all the same. Isn’t he fantastic? I am mesmerized by the owlish glasses and frothy beard. He’s best remembered for his limericks (nursery-appropriate) and for poems like “The Owl and the Pussycat,” but before he went all nonsensical he was a painter of birds and landscapes. And Edward? Edward did not shoot his birds to paint them. Biographer Peter Levi explains:
“A young Zoo keeper would hold the bird while Lear measured it in various directions, then he would sketch it once or twice in different poses in pencil. Some of those sketches contain very funny caricatures of the British public who came to goggle. He got his formal permission to work in the Zoo in June 1830, signed by Lord Stanely as its President. My own memory of the parrot house is of the most terribly loud noises of squawking and screeching, but at that time not so many birds were immured together. The public clearly irritated Lear far more than the birds did; the way people stare at an artist at work or a caged animal was something he never got used to” (36).
Edward was a kind, docile bird painter. Really, it would perhaps damage his reputation, later in life, as a children’s author if the kiddies were led to imagine him pointing a shotgun skyward, waiting for that starling to fly the coop. His drawings are not as well-known as Audubon’s, but this is perhaps because he could not economically make it as a bird painter and had to turn to ventures that would turn a speedier profit. I certainly don’t think it’s because Lear’s bird paintings were any less beautiful or accurate than his bird-murdering colleagues. Lear created, for example, widely admired paintings of parrots:
But alas, Lear’s career as a bird painter is obviously far overshadowed by Audubon. And for anything to overshadow Lear — that’s impressive. Lear himself described his physique as “perfectly spherical.”
He’s a lot of man to love. Oh, the glasses. Sigh.
* I have no idea what white gyrfalcons would eat, so the fish is a blatant guess. I think I detect a hint of seashore in the background? I need my resident bird expert and close friend Lilian to set me straight.