Audobon’s ‘Magnificent Obsession’ shown at Schaffer Library


By Kerry Lewis

Starting on Sept. 6, John James Audobon’s “Magnificent Obsession” has been on display in the Schaffer Library Commons and Lallly Reading Room.

In your many hours of mid-term studying, you have likely seen the large, detailed images of birds displayed along the walls of the library’s Lally Reading Room.

These high-quality facsimile prints from John James Audubon’s major work, “The Birds of America,” are much more than pretty pictures, and their history at Union has been long and interesting.

Audubon, a well-known painter and naturalist, is most noted for his attempts to document all types of American birds.

In 1827, he completed his first compilation of hand-colored engravings, each crafted on a huge scale: The prints are approximately 26-by-38 inches, which lends life-like quality to the images of the birds and their environments.

Eliphalet Nott, Union’s President in 1844, bought one of the original copies of “The Birds of America” from the artist himself for $1,000.

Until the 1920s, however, the books were not treated as the magnificent works of art they are, but were kept in attic storage.

Many familiar birds are included in the current exhibit, such as the blue heron and the American crow, alongside more exotic birds, such as the flamingo and the golden eagle.

Whether we are or are not familiar with each bird, Audubon manages to convey, in a single frame, each bird’s natural character and habitat in a very lively and unique way, making each bird come alive to the viewer.

Though they are peacefully exhibited here, Union’s copy of the so-called “Elephant Folio,” one of only about 130 known sets of the four-volume “Birds of America,” doesn’t have a completely peaceful past.

In June of 1971, Volume I of the set was on display in Schaffer Library when it was stolen by a thief, later discovered to be an ex-convict on parole on a bank-robbery charge.

After a month, Union was contacted by a rare bookseller in Texas who had received a call from a man claiming to have some old books and “some old pictures of birds.”

Some of the descriptions given matched those Union hadput out in the hopes of recovering the prints.

With the help of the FBI, the bookseller managed to recover all of the prints from the stolen volume, and the set was returned to Union and cleaned to remove the damage exacted by the theft, including traces of the thief’s blood.

Although you can view a selection of these prints by just walking through the doors of the library, artwork with such a history is surely worth learning more about.

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, during common hour — from 12:55 p.m. to 1:55 p.m. — there was a talk on the John James Audubon exhibition in Schaffer Library’s Lally Reading Room. A reception will followed the talk.

The Audobon exhibition will be on display in the Lally Reading Room at Schaffer Library until  Nov. 30, 2014.



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