Tuesday, October 11, 2016


These two recently published graphic biographies represent the tip of a very large iceberg of similar works that offer the reader a wonderful introduction to the life and works of significant characters. It's an area of publishing that THE GENERALIST hopes to get into in the year ahead.

John-Jaques Audubon was born illegitimately in 1781 in Santo Domingue in 1780 (now known as Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owners and his French mistress. His mother died shortly after his birth and he was  sent back to France where he grew up in and around Nantes and had a lively interest in birds, nature, drawing and music. At the age of 18, his father sent him to America to escape being drafted into Napoleon's army, to Mill Grove, a family property near Philadelphia, where he met and married Lucy Bakewell. They had two boys who worked with their father and two girls that died in childhood. 

Audubon spent more than a decade as a businessman, eventually travelling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky—then the frontier— where he establshed a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio.

While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as two daughters who died in infancy. Audubon was quite successful until his sawmill failed and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.

After being released from jail he decided to devote himself to what was to became his grand obsession -  to discover and paint all the species of American birds. he had little idea of the mammoth nature of his task. 

He spent more than 30 years exploring the American wilderness, beginning with a major expedition down the Mississippi with his assistant Joseph in the 1820s, a journey we follow in this book. Both of them were almost killed by a giant bear. Audubon shot most of the birds he depicted in his immaculate life-size paintings, eviscerating and arranging them in poses that were meant, ironically, to be full of life. 

The graphic account also depicts the incident when Audubon's contracts a serious fever (complete with dream-like hallucinations) which is intercut with the remarkable sight of a unnumbered giant flock of passenger pigeons that took three days to fly past them. His small party are happily rescued by a passing river boat and taken downstream to New Orleans.

The paintings he had made up to that time were soundly rejected as Audubon's former friend Alexander Wilson had already written, illustrated and published his 'American Ornithology'. By contrast, Audubon's paintings were considered too artistic and not scientific enough, more appropriate for an art gallery than a science museum.

In search of sponsors, Audubon travelled to Britain, arriving in Liverpool in 1826, where he met with great success, being billed as 'The American Woodman'. The graphic bio dwells on his meeting with Charles Darwin. He also gained support from Cuvier and other scientists in Paris.

Equally importantly, Audubon found the talented engravers of Havell. It took them 12 years to print the 436 aquatint plates that compose 'Birds of America' Audubon's masterpiece, first released in 1936. 

A smaller edition also proved highly successful and Audubon became rich and famous. He made one final expedition, documented from his letters in this work, before finally returning to his family. In his last years he suffered from dementia before he died in 1851 in New York.

Excellent and detailed Wikipedia entry

[Left]John James Audubon. Painting: John Syme courtesy of White House Historical Association

The Audubon Society, established in the late 1800s, has made his name synonymous with birds and bird conservation all over the world.

Audubon's work is highly valued. Only 120 complete sets are known to exist. On 20 January 2012 a complete copy of the first edition was sold at Christie's auction house in Manhattan for $7.9 million. Fortunately the University of Pittsburgh has created a website where you can view their entire set. This is a remarkable resource as you can examine each image in great detail.
[See also Birds of America Wikipedia entry]

[Left] Carolina pigeon (now called mourning dove)

'Audubon: On The Wings of the World' is written and illustrated by Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer. [Published by Nobrow to their usual high standards] They make the point that, in France, Audubon remains practically unknown, presumably their motive for producing it. It's a substantial and beautiful tribute to a remarkable man. 


The fourth title in the Self Made Hero Art Masters series after Pablo, Vincent and Munch, Dali by Baudoin is a delightful work of inventive skill, a heartfelt homage to this extraordinary individual. 

Baudoin is short for Edmond Baudoin who I am ashamed to say I was previously unaware of. Here's his Wikipedia entry and website

We all know Dali or think we do. His images have become ingrained in our culture. The soft watches are still ticking. 

Personal digression: I still remember the shock of seeing my first Dali in the flesh - 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' - when on a school art trip to the Tate                                            back in the '60s. 

I am thrilled to still be in possession of the remarkable book on  Dali published by Abrams in 1968, a collaboration between Dali himself and Max Gérard, French author, film producer and director. A giant candy box of a book, it's a constant inspiration. [A kind gift to my family from Michael M, still appreciated after all these years] 

Perhaps to be matched in sumptuousness by the new Taschen book, flagged up on the ever wonderful Colossal website: See: 'Salvador Dali’s Rare Surrealist Cookbook Republished for the First Time in over 40 Years'

Baudoin's book is in this high company and offers a wonderful introduction to Dali's life and work through the life and spirit and imagination of Monsieur B himself, who brings a high level of thought, intelligence, skill, humour and craft to his task.

The body of the book is in bold, stark black and white, drawn largely in what looks like charcoal but with other b&w styles that might use ink. There are pages with frames, others that break out across spreads, others that combine many elements in a constantly surprising cornucopia. To add icing to the cake, Baudoin occasionally and effectively drops in colour touches. Superb! 

The way he handles the narration is also masterly: a groovy boy and girl pass through and into the frames of famous paintings, scenes and elements of Dali's life and also have discussions with the artist himself who appears from time to time.

The book is completed with a carefully researched 20pp chronology of  Dali's life (1904-1989) and a Selected Bibliography. A great piece of work.

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