The Audubon Collection

The Audubon Collection

Audubon in Liverpool

John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) is one of the most renowned natural history illustrators. He is known for his monumental work The Birds of America, which had an immense influence on the study of natural history.

Less known is that Audubon’s visits to Liverpool, and friendship with a prominent Liverpool merchant family, the Rathbones, were key to its success. The University of Liverpool's collection contains a number of original artworks by Audubon, which he gifted to the Rathbones, and they in turn donated to the University. These include 3 oil paintings - of which one is a version of a plate in Birds of America - and watercolours that were painted in Liverpool as gifts for the Rathbones.

Artistic works were luxury items in this period and many were funded by the transatlantic slave trade. Audubon himself owned enslaved people, and expressed opposition to them obtaining civil rights both in private and in works published to accompany his art. Many of the backers of Birds of America, which had to be funded through subscription, probably also owed part of their wealth to the slave trade or to industries reliant on enslaved labour.

We understand that some viewers may find it difficult to enjoy work by artists who owned enslaved people. We have taken the approach of presenting Audubon’s work as just one example of the way in which both science and philanthropy were often dependent on enslaved labour, and being honest about the role that the city and University played in this. Work to identify the links between the University and the transatlantic slave trade is ongoing and this page will continue to be updated to reflect this.

Audubon artwork of a 'Hawk pouncing on partridges'. 'Hawk pouncing on partridges', 1827 - oil painting, one of seven works exhibited by Audubon at the Royal Institution in Liverpool.


Audubon’s early life and visit to Liverpool

Audubon was born Jean Rabin in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate child of a French sea captain who owned plantations on the island and traded enslaved people. It is possible that his mother was multiracial, as he was described as ‘Creole’ in his father’s will, and had several multiracial half-siblings born to other members of the household. Audubon sought to keep his exact origins unclear and to assert himself in white society, including by owning enslaved people himself later in life.

During the 1791 Black rebellion against French rule, Audubon was sent to live in Nantes. He proved unsuited to following his father as a sea captain, and at 18, to avoid conscription to Napoleon’s army, he relocated to America to oversee some of the family business interests. Despite his best efforts, Audubon was also a poor businessman and decided instead to concentrate on being a natural history artist. He planned to paint every type of bird in America and publish the images in a book.

It is possible that Audubon’s upbringing contributed to his perseverance in making a success of his work despite multiple obstacles. His project was a huge undertaking that required funding raised through subscription. There was little interest at home, so he travelled to Britain to see if he could find support here.

Sailing into Liverpool in 1826, Audubon had a letter of introduction to Richard Rathbone. The Rathbones welcomed Audubon into the family home of Greenbank, now part of the University campus, and introduced him to his influential circle of friends at the Liverpool Royal Institution. Audubon held an exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Institution and visited Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and London to gain support for his book. Audubon amassed 100 subscribers and found a publisher enabling his project to go ahead.

Self-portrait of Audubon.A self-portrait of Audubon, drawn in pencil during his stay with the Rathbones. It is captioned: ‘Audubon at Greenbank. Almost Happy !! Sept 1826’.


Audubon, the Rathbones, and slavery

Audubon’s circle at the Institution included its President, William Roscoe, a notable abolitionist, and his deputy, John Gladstone (father of the later Prime Minister, William Gladstone), who was head of one of the largest slave-owning families in the British Empire.

The Rathbone family were also members of the Liverpool Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade, an isolated position in the city at this time. Originally involved in the timber trade, from around the 1780s they refused, on religious grounds, to supply material for the construction of slave ships, though they did have interests in cotton.

The environment at the Royal Institution shows how entrenched slavery was in most industries, even those that today we would regard as social goods, such as the arts. Gladstone's collaboration with figures such as the Rathbones and Roscoe suggests that he did not view any of their actions as a serious threat. Even prominent abolitionists were not willing to accept the complete loss of investment opportunities and connections that would be necessary to commit to the principles they professed. 

This is not exceptional: many advancements in scientific disciplines, and philanthropy that benefited British cities, were made possible by the exploitation of enslaved people. Many of Audubon’s subscribers across Britain might also have owed part of their wealth to enslaved labour, directly or indirectly.

William Gladstone (the Prime Minister) initially opposed the abolition of slavery and helped his father obtain compensation, but came to feel that abolition had been the right course of action once he broke free from his father’s influence. It would be interesting to investigate whether he was exposed to the abolitionist views of the Rathbones and whether this influenced his change of position.


Audubon’s birds

A massive undertaking in all senses of the word, The Birds of America was published in ‘double-elephant’ paper size (40 x 27 inches or 100 x 70cm) with 435 illustrations. Subscribers received 5 images at a time (1 large, 1 medium, and 3 small) and some waited 11 years to complete their set. For this reason, surviving copies of the book are extremely rare. It was completed in 1838 and a first edition copy is now displayed at Liverpool’s Central Library.

The composition American Wild Turkey Cock appears as a plate in Birds of America. In the book Audubon was constrained by the page size and concentrated on the image of the bird, whereas the paintings features the turkey in its natural habitat. The setting is in front of the Falls of Ohio near Louisville, where he first lived with his wife.

Audubon’s depictions of wildlife, especially birds, are admired for their accuracy. They were often drawn from specimens he had hunted and killed himself, then posed using a system of wires. Mrs Hannah Rathbone called him ‘the prince of bird-killers’ in a letter to her son Theodore (Richard’s brother).

An exception is our watercolours of a robin, which Audubon painted from life at Greenbank, because it visited Mrs Rathbone in her study and she persuaded him not to kill it. Audubon presented this drawing to Hannah Rathbone, to whom he had formed a strong attachment.

Audubon artwork called 'Robin perched on a mossy stone'.‘Robin perched on a mossy stone', a watercolour Audubon painted at Greenbank and presented to Mrs Hannah Rathbone.


Finding out more

The University’s collection of eight original artworks by Audubon is believed to be the largest in Britain, and is displayed at the Victoria Gallery & Museum.

We thank the Rathbone family, supporters of the University since its inception, for their continued generosity and contribution to the Audubon collection. The University’s Special Collections and Archives holds the Rathbone papers. For information on the Rathbones mentioned here, please see the Rathbone Family Tree.