cover image AUDUBON'S ELEPHANT: America's Greatest Naturalist and the Making of 'The Birds of America'

AUDUBON'S ELEPHANT: America's Greatest Naturalist and the Making of 'The Birds of America'

Duff Hart-Davis, . . Holt, $27.50 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-7568-7

With precision and detail, Hart-Davis, an English nature writer, tells the story of Audubon's years in England and Europe trying to sell his unwieldy masterpiece. Audubon, at 41 years old a peripatetic woodsman and artist, sailed for England, carrying a 100-pound portfolio of his bird paintings (his "elephant" or double-elephant color folio format). Full of quotations from Audubon's lively, honest diaries and letters, Hart-Davis's book portrays this man of exuberance and determination as he walked 165 miles from Kentucky to Ste. Genevieve, Mo., on the Mississippi River trying to collect funds owed him. Facing bankruptcy in America, Audubon sailed to Europe and slowly but surely met wealthy, connected families like the Rathbones in England and men like William Home Lizars in Edinburgh, who was to become Audubon's first printer. Despite bitter competition from the supporters of another ornithologist (George Ord) and long separations from his wife, Lucy, and their children, Audubon prevailed, meeting Sir Walter Scott and securing subscriptions from King George IV and other members of the royal family. Because the book focuses mainly on the years of Audubon's European travels, one doesn't get a full picture of the man, and readers may question the importance of the minutiae of meals and weather on his journey. However, solid research, fine writing and details of 19th-century society make this a worthwhile book for historians, artists and Audubon enthusiasts alike. What stands out most are the 31 b&w and 41 color illustrations throughout. (Apr.)