IT’S one of the world’s rarest and most coveted books, but although it depicts the birds of America the process of publishing it began in Scotland.

Now a new exhibition will display for the first time unbound prints from Birds Of America as well as explore the author’s often overlooked connections to slavery and his links to Scotland.

Opening next month at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, it will showcase 46 unbound prints from the museum’s collection as well as a rare bound volume of Birds Of America, on loan from Glasgow’s Mitchell Library.

The book was the culmination of John James Audubon’s ambition to paint every bird species in North America, and is celebrated for its extraordinarily animated, dramatic and detailed illustrations.

In order to accommodate life-sized birds, it was printed on paper which was almost 1m long. Even then, some larger species had to be posed in contorted positions in order to fit them on to the page. As well as being one of the world’s rarest books, it is also one of the biggest.

Publishing it was no easy task and it was only when Audubon visited Edinburgh that the project really took off. He went to the Scottish capital several times between 1826 and 1839, taking his bird paintings with him. One of the main reasons he travelled to Scotland was because he was desperate to meet author Walter Scott and managed his first meeting with the author a year after his arrival in 1826.

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He was also fortunate to meet some more of the key figures of the time in science and literature. Foremost of these was William Home Lizars, a talented engraver and artist, who was the first man to consider seriously engraving and publishing the bird paintings. He played a key role in the production of Birds Of America, painstakingly engraving the first 10 copper plates.

Meanwhile Robert Jameson, keeper of Edinburgh University’s natural history museum, gave Audubon access to the bird specimens in the collections. Audubon used these when writing Ornithological Biography, the book to accompany the bird paintings. Here he was helped by keen ornithologist William MacGillivray, who had worked with Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University’s natural history museum.

Audubon also visited anatomist Robert Knox on his first day in Edinburgh and later attended one of Knox’s lectures. Knox’s career was eventually ruined by the Burke and Hare grave-robbing scandal.

While Audubon’s magnificent book is a classic of its kind, it is actually a Scot who is regarded as the father of ornithology in America. Self-taught naturalist Alexander Wilson was a Paisley weaver who was forced to leave Scotland to escape a charge of sedition because of his rebellious poems. He was entranced by the birdlife in his new home and began to document it, thereby founding the study of ornithology in the United States. He died while working on his ninth volume in 1813, giving his name to five American birds and also influencing Audubon.

The National:

Mark Glancy, exhibition curator, said: “Birds Of America is one of the most beautiful and famous books in the world, and the story of its creation is extraordinary. Most people have only seen digital copies, so this lavish exhibition gives visitors a once-in-a-generation opportunity to view so many of the prints together in one place and appreciate the scale and ambition of Audubon’s ‘great work’. Audubon was, and remains, a contradictory and controversial figure and the exhibition will examine the myths and the reality behind this American icon.”

WHERE his predecessors and contemporaries illustrated birds looking stiff and unnatural, Audubon was pioneering in his depiction of scenes from nature, pinning birds into realistic poses he had observed in life and painting on the spot.

He is traditionally celebrated as the quintessential American woodsman, adventurer and naturalist, who identified more than 20 species new to science. His paintings of the natural world are some of the most famous in the history of art and natural sciences, and his portrait hangs in the White House.

Audubon’s story, however, is full of controversy, and the exhibition will look at both the legend which built up around him and the more complex, problematic realities. He profited from the ownership of enslaved people and showed disdain towards the abolitionist movement, aspects of his story which have been overlooked until recently. His scientific standing is also disputed, as he made errors in his identification of birds and has been accused of fabricating some species.

The National:

The exhibition will bring the story up to the present day, looking at the conservation status of some of the species featured in Birds Of America.

Eight years ago a complete copy of the first edition was sold in London at Sotheby’s for £7,321,250.

A copy sold at auction in New York recently for $9.6 million. The richly illustrated book, featuring more than 400 hand-coloured illustrations of 1037 life-size birds, is one of just 13 complete sets thought remaining in private hands.

The exhibition runs from February 12 until May 8