Audubon: On the wings of the world
Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer
Nobrow Press 2016, Hbk, 184pp
ISBN: 978-1-910620-15-1 AUD $29.99
Did you know that the greatest book on American birds was the work of a Frenchman? The ornithologist and artist James John Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785 to a French father and grew up in Nantes. At 18 he moved to America where he made his name – and a profound contribution to natural history and environmental studies. His legacy of four enormous volumes - The Birds of America - depicts life-sized images of every bird he could see, shoot, stuff, paint and portray between 1820 and 1838.
The life of James John Audubon is brilliantly captured in this bande dessinnée, first published in France in 2016 and now in an English edition by UK champions Nobrow Press. In Audubon: On the wings of the world Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer bring storytelling and design smarts along with real empathy for the subject in a book for teenagers and older. And like the subject himself, their book proves to be another valuable French export.
The story by Grolleau and Royer begins in high drama and never slackens. As James Audubon and co. are drifting downriver focused on the birds above, a massive storm is heading their way. Desperate to save his sketches, and their own lives, the party scramble ashore and take refuge in a cave. Here Audubon broods upon his misfortune until he sees in the gloom an owl staring fixedly at him. So turning disaster to profit, he passes the storm by drawing the patient bird.
Aubudon's life work really began after businesses failed and he was gaoled for bankruptcy (oh, that Donald Trump were gaoled for his!). Funded in large part by the work of his teacher wife, Lucy, he travelled for more than a decade in America and then to England drawing, painting, researching, writing and publishing Birds of America. During this time Lucy raised children (two others died in infancy) and endured years of isolation. There is something of the 'grand folly' in Audubon's story, a relentless pursuit of a noble cause. In his driving obsession and determination Audubon reminds me a lot of the explorer Matthew Flinders, the first to circumnavigate Australia. Sailing back to England, Flinders was imprisoned by the French on Mauritius for seven years, and died soon after his eventual return.
American institutions found his work too romantic, not sufficiently scientific and his rival Alexander Wilson was in the ascendent. But the English couldn't get enough of Audubon's dramatic images and provided willing support and financial subscribers. Audubon’s book was published in 87 parts then finally gathered into four volumes - double elephant folio size – each over one metre high. You might say Birds of America is an early example of crowdfunded global publishing with a strong environmental theme. Plus ça change, non?
Today, the State Library Victoria has the complete bound set of Birds of America on permanent display in the Dome Galleries. (Matthew Flinders' map of Australia is in the same room.) When I dropped in recently, the page displayed was the bird of Washington, about which there is some dispute. The Library’s copy was purchased for £100 at a knock-down price from teacher William Stallard by Sir Redmond Barry (best known as the judge who sent Ned Kelly to the gallows). More recently, Aubudon’s Birds of America changed hands at Christies for about US$8 million.
Winner of the 2016 Best bande dessinée at the Festival International de géographie.
About the creators
Born in 1972 Fabien Grolleau trained in architecture and has written numerous bandes dessinée for publishers including Delcourt, Sarbacane and Daguard. He is the editorial manager for the independent press Vide Cocagne, which he established with Thierry Bedouet in 2003. The company is based in Nantes, the same city James John Audubon lived in growing up in France.
Jérémie Royer was born in Paris 1979 and grew up in Nice. He trained in advertising design in Nice before moving to Paris to extend his career, then studied for two years at l'école de bande dessinée Saint-Luc in Brussels. He is part of the studio l'atelier Mille. Jérémie and Fabien worked on Audubon: On the wings of the world for three years.
For more on the original book see the Audubon Society website.