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Birds of a Feather? Walter Scott and John James Audubon
5th May 2022
Abbotsford's Collections and Interpretation Manager, Kirsty Archer- Thompson, explores Sir Walter Scott's connection to artist, naturalist, and ornithologist John James Audobon.
I often say to people that - whether they are aware of it or not - they’re rarely more than six degrees from a Walter Scott connection! With only days left to see the superb Audubon’s Birds of America exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, it seemed like the perfect moment to prove that point.
On October 25th, 1826, John James Audubon craned his neck from a jiggling stagecoach bound for Edinburgh from Carlisle, hoping to catch a brief glimpse of Scott’s seat. Over breakfast in his George Street lodgings the next morning, he determined to try and meet his literary idol as he made a series of introductions to the leading lights of Edinburgh.
When Professor John Jameson suggested to him that he would be highly unlikely to have the opportunity to meet Scott, given that the author was increasingly elusive and intensely focussed on his biography of Napoleon, Audubon was appalled, recording: "Not see Sir Walter Scott?" thought I; "I shall, if I have to crawl on all fours for a mile."
It is in another journal entry on 12th December 1826 in the company of the natural historian David Brewster, that we get a real sense of the extent to which Scott’s literature and his portrayal of landscapes and nature had resonated with the young artist. When Brewster cheerfully announced that Audubon and Scott were due to attend the same event at the Royal Academy and may cross paths, his guest was overcome with emotion and intense anxiety, confessing that he had spoken to Scott out loud ‘hundreds of times’ when walking the woodlands of Kentucky and Louisiana and had dreamed of him writing about the fragile landscapes he cherished ‘for the sake of future ages,’ but that was a dialogue in his mind and not with a man of flesh and blood.
A further six weeks passed, and the two men seemed to pass like ships in the night, then on 22nd January 1827, Audubon was interrupted at work, paintbrush in hand, by the naval officer and author, Basil Hall. The account is best told in his own words:
“Captain Hall came in, and said: 'Put on your coat, and come with me to Sir Walter Scott; he wishes to see you now.' In a moment I was ready, for I really believe my coat and hat came to me instead of my going to them. My heart trembled; I longed for the meeting, yet wished it over. Had not his wondrous pen penetrated my soul with the consciousness that here was a genius from God's hand! I felt overwhelmed at the thought of meeting Sir Walter, the Great Unknown. We reached the house, and a powdered waiter was asked if Sir Walter were in. We were shown forward at once, and entering a very small room Captain Hall said: 'Sir Walter, I have brought Mr. Audubon.' Sir Walter came forward, pressed my hand warmly, and said he was 'glad to have the honour of meeting me.' His long, loose, silvery locks struck me; he looked like Franklin at his best. He also reminded me of Benjamin West; he had the great benevolence of William Roscoe about him and a kindness most prepossessing.
I could not forbear looking at him, my eyes feasted on his countenance. I watched his movements as I would those of a celestial being; his long, heavy, white eyebrows struck me forcibly. His little room was tidy, though it partook a good deal of the character of a laboratory. He was wrapped in a quilted morning-gown of light purple silk; he had been at work writing on the 'Life of Napoleon.' He writes close lines, rather curved as they go from left to right, and puts an immense deal on very little paper…There was much conversation. I talked but little, but, believe me, I listened and observed, careful if ignorant. I cannot write more now.”
Scott also took the time to capture his initial impressions in his own journal entry that day, particularly the unassuming nature of his guest at 3 Walker Street:
"January 22, 1827. …no dust or glimmer, or shine about him, but great simplicity of manners and behaviour; slight in person and plainly dressed; wears long hair, which time has not yet tinged; his countenance acute, handsome, and interesting, but still simplicity is the predominant characteristic. I wish I had gone to see his drawings; but I had heard so much about them that I resolved not to see them—a crazy way of mine, your honour.”
Two days passed and Audubon managed to get the better of his crippling nerves, making for an enjoyable second meeting during which they discussed his ornithological portfolio and Scott reviewed several of his drawings. Scott was typically considered a valuable source of advice on all matters of publishing business and Audubon “found him so willing to level himself with me for awhile that the time spent at his home was agreeable and valuable.”
Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, there is no copy of Audubon’s Birds of America in the Abbotsford Library, but Scott does record his impressions of his guest’s obvious talent:
“The drawings are of the first order—the attitudes of the birds of the most animated character, and the situations appropriate; one of a snake attacking a bird's nest, while the birds (the parents) peck at the reptile's eyes—they usually, in the long-run, destroy him, says the naturalist. The feathers…are most brilliant, and are represented with what, were it [not] connected with so much spirit in the attitude, I would call a laborious degree of execution. This extreme correctness is of the utmost consequence to the naturalist, [but] as I think (having no knowledge of virtu), rather gives a stiffness to the drawings.”
Scott’s more general critique of the precise illustrative style of naturalists may explain why there are few books of this genre in his Library. This concept of reducing or banishing the essence of something so delicate and ephemeral purely through the act of faithfully capturing its form felt like an echo of something else to me. It reminded me of the accusation levelled at Scott by Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg, as Scott collected the ballads of the oral tradition for publication, bemoaning that ‘they were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now!’