Blame it on Audubon: Or how I became a fine art appraiser. Part One.

 

In April of 1998 a small museum in Central Florida hired me as a fine art consultant and Interim Director. The previous Director had left after having spent just a few weeks on the job.

 

A very important  exhibition of art by John James Audubon had been scheduled and publicized to open in the Fall. The ambitious show promised to include not only his large bird prints, but also some original works, rare books and a number of Audubon's personal items and letters.

 

I thought this was an interesting and exciting project as Audubon had traveled the coast and interior of Florida on a birding  expedition in 1831. He was a house guest at several East Florida plantations and he created a number of his original watercolors of the bird species that he found. The Audubon portrait pictured here in an engraving made by Charles Wands after the original oil painting by the Scottish artist John Syme ( b.1795 - d. 1861). The oil painting is on permanent display in the Green Room of The White House,1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington, D.C.

 

 

For many years my previous director positions had been at university art galleries and the focus of my curatorial efforts and interests had been mainly contemporary art. The task of curating an Audubon exhibition required that I not only steep myself in as much information about the artist and his work as possible, but most importantly that I find a viable loan source for the artworks and  the promised personal artifacts.....Fortunately there are a great number of beautifully illustrated books that faithfully reproduce his artworks and as luck would have it there were also two new biographies being written about Audubon's remarkable life.

 

I acquired a number of the books and started reading everything I could find about his Florida travels in an effort to identify exactly which birds he drew during the expedition.  At that time finding a reliable loan source for any of Audubon's large original prints was a somewhat daunting task. A task further complicated in that the prints had to be the correct birds for his 1831-1832 expedition to Florida. After some considerable digging  I finally managed to find a loan source that would rent a small number of the large Audubon double elephant sized hand colored engravings. I was just about to issue a check when I found a photograph of a small 19th Century British silver commemorative cup...... 

 

The image of the 1834  presentation silver cup was found on page 81 of Ella M. Foshay's 1997 book  "John James Audubon". Ms. Foshay was the former curator of the New York Historical Society that has all of the original watercolors for "The Birds of America" in its collection. Ms. Foshay is a noted authority on the life and work of Audubon and her book was fascinating, but what captured my attention was the fact that the  4 1/2" high by 3  3/4" diameter loving cup was credited as belng in the collection of the John James Audubon State Park, Henderson, Kentucky......

 

I immediately reached for my copy of the Museum Directory and found what I was looking for. I decided to call the State Park and I was fortunate enough to speak with the Audubon museum's curator , Mr. Don Boarman. I introduced myself, explained my situation and asked if his organization had ever loaned out Audubon original prints and was told that they did. My next question was about the availability of any related artifacts or Audubon's personal items and I was greatly relieved to find that there were a number of items from which to choose and I only needed  to come and make some selections. I thanked him for the invitation and asked him when he would be willing to meet. I packed that evening and left East Central Florida for the twelve hour drive to Henderson, Kentucky the next day.. ......

 

Don Boarman proved to be a simply amazing resource with a uniquely personal understanding and appreciation of Audubon's life and work. He could speak about the the artist and the man and the family with great empathy and in great detail with candor dispelling the abundant myths and appreciating the true historical and social context of the times. After talking with Don I realized how little I knew about the artist and this early period of American life and that any exhibition of Audubon's art that I was to curate must clearly relate a greater understanding and an accurate presentation of the life of the artist and his family. Too many exhibitions attempt to place contemporary values on past events and this is in my opinion a disservice to the present by judging the past by current (and often dubious) beliefs and mores.

 

History had fascinated me since my early childhood in New England and and I remember hearing tales of the heroine Hannah Dustin and the Indians on the Merrimack River growing up in Groveland and later Andover, Massachusetts. My older brother Kirk and I would play French and Indian War as children in our tri- corner hats and homemade swords...(He was always the British General Wolfe and I was always the French general Montcalm). We lived in an old 18th Century Georgian house, avidly read the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson, The Encyclopedia Britannica and early American history was alive for us. So as you might imagine the history of Audubon's art, life and times  became my foremost research project. Finding the correct 1831- 1832 series of his Florida bird prints and the assembly of a timeline of his life was my starting point. A working framework to mount the facts as they evolved over time and to place them in the context of other influential events and individuals. A "Who What Where" chart.....

 

The John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky has campgrounds and rental cabins as well as a truly remarkable museum and visitor's center. The buildings and park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930's Depression and the museum building is fashioned after the architecture of a French Chateau complete with a mansard roof and a tower with a spiral staircase. The top of the tower houses the museum curator's office and archive.

 

End Part One..........

 

 

 

 

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